This has been a simultaneously generous and brutal year for fans of pop music. Several major-label superstars have released long-awaited albums, or surprise albums, or extra albums. And, with the exception of Drake, who dropped Views with minimal logistical confusion, they’ve also spent 2016 making a mockery of rumored timetables and fan speculation regarding the release of new, highly anticipated music. In January, Rihanna released Anti after a year of false starts, scrapped songs, missed dates, and maddening Samsung promos. In February, Kanye transformed himself into the Joker to promote The Life of Pablo, an album that he hadn’t finished recording even upon its initial, first-draft release in February. In April, Beyoncé released Lemonade — an album, a short film, a poetry collection, a marriage confessional, a life experience — with the total, overwhelming urgency of a hurricane. And just last month, Frank Ocean was kind enough to release not just one, but two albums in a single weekend; of course, prior to that he was unkind enough to string his fans along with cryptic, indecipherable release-date teasers and an elusive social media presence. These artists all technically met fan expectations in their own, unexpected ways, but with distressingly short notice. This is how we consume pop music now: anxiously, chaotically, and with limited certainty about anything.
So imagine my relief in the past 48 hours as the Weeknd began a simple, straightforward rollout of his forthcoming album, Starboy, due out November 25. The Weeknd announced the album’s title and shared its cover art on Wednesday. About 12 hours later, he released the titular single, “Starboy,” and confirmed the release date — all in just a couple of tweets. Already, Starboy is the most mercifully conventional album rollout of the year, from a singer who, like Frank Ocean, was once dreadfully shy of the press, but who, rather unlike Frank Ocean, isn’t a goddamn Carmen Sandiego diva about it.
The single itself, “Starboy,” is fine. It’s the nothing-if-not-logical next step in the overall mainstreaming of the Weeknd, once an angsty, edgy, dungeon-sex mixtape singer who’s cleaned up his act ever since he sang alongside Ariana Grande on her top 10 single “Love Me Harder” in 2014. The Weeknd’s last album, Beauty Behind the Madness, spawned his first spree of concurrent pop hits, including “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” both no. 1 singles. Starboy, scheduled for release just 15 months after the Weeknd’s pop breakout album, will have to live up to his own massive momentum, and in a landscape where success is now suddenly a matter of billing album launches as extinction-level events. The Weeknd may be playing it too cool for his own good; in subjecting himself to a timely, conventional rollout, with just two months between his first single and his album release date, he seems to be launching at a softer volume than his contemporaries.
The Weeknd isn’t the only pop star rolling out a major album in an exceedingly orderly manner. Lady Gaga recently released “Perfect Illusion,” her first solo album single since 2014, and she’s announced a October 21 release date for her forthcoming “country rock pop” album, Joanne. As far as I can see, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd have the two biggest releases on the horizon — if only because everyone else but Taylor Swift has already released an album this year — and both singers have been so courteous as to tell us in advance when, exactly, we should plan to lose a night’s sleep clicking back and forth between Spotify and Twitter on a school night. It feels like a relief — even if the two singles in question are both underwhelming.
Summer’s over. The recording industry pumped unrelenting hype behind several dramatic, unconventional album releases this year, and now I’m exhausted. Leave it to the Weekend, an increasingly sanitized commercial pop brand best suited to Hollywood soundtracks and Apple Music commercials, to restore order to a marketplace of wild promises and Sunday morning surprises.