August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Super Bowl 2021: The Weeknd ‘Highlights’: Every song ranked

The Weeknd says his new compilation, “The Highlights,” is not a greatest-hits set, but the only reason anyone should take that claim seriously is because the album doesn’t include his ecstatic 2015 single “In the Night.”

Issued just a couple of days before he’ll headline the halftime show at Sunday’s Super Bowl LV, the close-to-comprehensive “Highlights” does what all best-of collections do: rounds up an act’s most well-known material so that anyone made curious about him — by, say, a performance on music’s most-watched stage — can quickly get up to speed.

So why the attempt to keep this thing from being called what it clearly is? Perhaps the Weeknd — an old-school album guy who’s spent the last year and change promoting 2020’s “After Hours” in costume — thinks the openly commercial format cheapens his songs. Yet that didn’t stop his team from sending out a press release Friday saying that, 12 minutes after it dropped, “Highlights” became “the most streamed album in history on Spotify.” (That’s because the existing streams for each song, including several with more than a billion each, instantly accrued to the compilation.)

More likely, the Weeknd wants to avoid giving anyone the idea that he’s reached some type of plateau — that he’s not still on the steady upward curve his career has resembled since he emerged mysteriously a decade ago from the Toronto underground. His inexplicable shutout at the upcoming Grammy Awards aside, this pop-soul auteur keeps getting bigger (if not always better) even as his increasingly polished music retains its darkly eccentric edge.

Here’s a rundown of the 18 tracks on “The Highlights,” ranked — as the business of hits always invites us to do — from worst to best.

18. “Heartless”

The least impressive of the Weeknd’s five No. 1 hits, “After Hours’” lead single feels in retrospect like something of a red herring: While the rest of the album achieves a new sonic and emotional clarity, “Heartless” recycles old themes and textures for a murky midtempo number minus any real pain or joy.

17. “Acquainted
Among those old themes: his instinctual avoidance of any type of commitment. That resistance begins to crack in this 2015 cut — “You got me putting time in,” he sings over a woozy beat — but the uncharacteristically vague “Acquainted” never explains how or why.

16. “After Hours
Using his gentlest falsetto, the Weeknd reveals that he wants to “share babies” with a lover — then strikes an unfortunate Yoda-like note as he tells her, “Protection, we won’t need.”

15. “Often
Form follows function in this bleary slow jam about having so much sex that the act has become sort of boring.

14. “Pray for Me”

Paired with Kendrick Lamar for the soundtrack to “Black Panther,” the Weeknd sets aside his usual preoccupations for a sleekly throbbing industrial-R&B tune about the sacrifices a hero is asked to make.

13. “Save Your Tears
Weightless, metronomic ’80s-style synth pop that makes clear how thoroughly he’s absorbed the lessons of what his pal Max Martin calls “melodic math.”

12. “The Morning
A gloomy yet witty oldie from the singer’s first DIY mixtape, back when he thought “drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast” was something to brag about.

11. “Call Out My Name
Widely thought to have been inspired by his relationship with Selena Gomez (whose 2017 kidney transplant evidently led him to “almost cut a piece of myself for your life”), this swooning waltz is the Weeknd at his most morbidly grandiose.

10. “Starboy”

Over a dystopian disco groove produced by Daft Punk, the singer details his celebrity lifestyle in a series of nouveau-riche vignettes, each more vivid than the last: “The competition, I don’t really listen / I’m in the blue Mulsanne bumping New Edition.”

9. “Die for You
Implicit in much of the Weeknd’s recent stuff are questions about how a performer’s race determines the way we classify his or her music. But this relatively deep cut from 2016’s “Starboy” album is as pure (and pretty) a soul ballad as he’s ever recorded.

8. “Love Me Harder
Years before Ariana Grande was punning lustily in her current single “34+35” — do the math if you need to — she invited the Weeknd to join her for this lightly coded celebration of rough sex.

7. “Wicked Games
Another holdover from his pre-major-label days, this one with a hypnotic guitar lick and a title meant from the get-go to place him in a stylish tradition of doomed romantic obsession.

6. “Blinding Lights”

According to the music-industry trade journal Hits, “Blinding Lights” brought in just over $70,000 in streaming revenue last week — more than a year after it first appeared on the Hot 100. Right now it’s at No. 3. If we keep failing to get sick of it, this song will pay for the Weeknd’s children’s children’s Mulsannes.

5. “Can’t Feel My Face
It’s impossible to be surprised by it now, after half a decade of pop-culture ubiquity, but try to remember the first time you heard “Can’t Feel My Face” — what it felt like when, after 40 seconds or so of moody synth-scaping, the singer suddenly did the yelp from “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” then dropped a bass line so nasty you had to yelp too.

4. “In Your Eyes
Kenny G heard this impeccably rendered pop-soul-funk throwback and knew he had to jump on a remix. That’s it. That’s the blurb.

3. “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)”

The lyric isn’t his greatest: “I love when you call unexpected / ’Cause I hate when the moment’s expected.” And the movie he wrote it for? Kind of goofy. But with its tricky intervals and his intricate runs, this orchestral torch song might feature his finest vocal performance to date.

2. “The Hills
Happily over the top yet somehow still faintly terrifying, the Weeknd’s nightmarish depiction of a life gone to ruin somewhere south of Mulholland replaced “Can’t Feel My Face” at No. 1, then spent six weeks parked there as America’s most twisted pop smash since … “Hotel California”?

1. “I Feel It Coming”

The Weeknd’s extremes go in both directions: Addressed to a woman who’s been mistreated by a guy like the one in “The Hills” — “You’ve been scared of love and what it did to you,” he coos over thrumming robo-guitars that evoke Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” — this is simply one of the most gorgeous love songs of the past 20 years.