Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
I haven’t always been a fan of The Weeknd. If I’m being honest, the cynicism he and other artists popularized in the early-2010s is partially why this column exists. Somewhere post-Drake, The Weeknd’s main contemporary, or maybe post-808s & Heartbreak, a hugely influential album for both artists, the rise of genre-fluidity wound up having an even more profound effect on R&B songwriting than Hip-Hop melodicism.
In short, love songs died when singers started singing about things rappers rap about. Aside from Drake and Kanye West, no one involved in this death has more blood on their hands than The Weeknd. However, in the famously unsentimental singer’s discography exists a single song that defies his most toxic impulses. Not only is “True Colors” The Weeknd’s finest attempt at traditional R&B, but compared to his other offerings, it’s also a shockingly mature love song.
An album cut from 2016’s Starboy, “True Colors” came at an interesting time in The Weeknd’s career. By then, he’d already released Kiss Land (2013) and Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), two LPs that had promising moments but ultimately felt unsure of what they wanted to be. Simultaneously, those albums showed flashes of the sort of pop brilliance that’d later define The Weeknd’s most successful work, while also attempting to feed his core fans the depressed and despondent hangover music they’d come to crave.
Starboy feels much more intentional in its mainstream ambitions. The Weeknd rolled it out with a new look after chopping off his trademark locs, and its cover art depicts the singer in front of a ruby red backdrop with its title in bold yellow block letters. This was a far cry from the way the “Wicked Games” performer presented his music back when he was an anonymous mystery on the internet.
There isn’t a single trace of The Weeknd’s blog-era mixtapes on Starboy. Bookended by two Daft Punk songs, the album feels like it was made for the airwaves even more explicitly than his recent radio-inspired concept album. Perhaps these Top 40 conditions are what led to his most proficient R&B song to date, as pop songwriting and R&B songwriting aren’t terribly different from one another. From the opening lyrics of “True Colors,” the track feels like something one might have heard in the 1990s heyday of grown man music.
Tell me the truth, baby girl, who else been with you?
It’s gon‘ come to my attention either way, yeah
And I understand, baby girl, we all have a past
I’d much rather hear the truth come straight from you
I know what you’re thinking. Ironically, the song starts off the way any other song about a woman would today; it’s patronizing and paternalistic, and even a little threatening. But note that it quickly becomes something that feels like an evolution from The Trilogy (House Of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes Of Silence). In leveling with his partner and referencing his own past as a way to explain his acceptance of hers, The Weeknd makes it clear this is a song about safe spaces.
So if I love you (If I love you)
It’d be just for you (It’d be just for you)
So when I’m touchin‘ you (Touchin‘ you)
Can I trust in you? (Trust in you)
Can I trust in you? Oh, babe
The pre-chorus is when the track feels its most romantic. “If I love you, it’d be just for you” is a sentimental way of suggesting loving someone in ignorance of their past rather than in spite of it would be to love a completely different person than the one in front of you.
Girl, come show me your true colors
Paint me a picture with your true colors
These are the questions of a new lover
True colors, true colors
Of course, what makes “True Colors” a definitive R&B song is its sultry production and The Weeknd’s straightforward singing. But, to me, what also contextualizes the song within the genre’s tradition is its understanding of theme, imagery, and resonant simplicity.
“Paint me a picture with your true colors” is a part of the chorus that clarifies the song’s message while also accomplishing something R&B has always done better than Hip-Hop—it says a lot with as few words as possible. Essentially, the lyric is saying, as a partner, I can’t know you unless I see you. The following line, “These are the questions of a new lover,” captures why sincere familiarity is so important. Aside from those unlucky enough to attract endless “talking” stages, people typically wind up committing to monogamous relationships with partners they’ve only known for a few months. There’s still lots to learn about a person when you begin dating them; things you’d like to believe you already know but truly don’t.
Has the woman The Weeknd is singing about ever cheated on a past partner? Is she capable of such a thing? Does she have any unresolved trauma that’d threaten their relationship? Are her previous relationships completely in her rearview? Has she seen the Real Sex Chappelle’s show sketch and now refuses to talk about the time she had a threesome with two dudes in college? None of this stuff matters until it suddenly does.
What’s done is done now that I’m the only one
If you tell me, I’ll accept what you’ve been through, oh yeah
And I don’t believe all this inconsistency
I’ve been hearin‘ different stories about you
Although there are more memorable lines throughout the song, the third verse of “True Colors” contains its most crucial set of lyrics. It’s important to be aware of the past experiences that have shaped your partner, but only to better understand the person you’re spending your time and potentially your life with—not to pass judgment. “What’s done is done,” and now that The Weeknd and this woman have both decided a future with each other is how they’d like to follow their pasts with other people, ignoring the latter wouldn’t help protect the former.
The line about not believing inconsistencies can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either he doesn’t believe what he’s heard from her, or he doesn’t believe what he’s heard about her. No matter which it is, it’s clear he doesn’t consider her a liar, just someone who might not yet trust him enough with the truth. In that sentiment, there’s a subtle expression of accountability and emotional security that, candidly, I find impressive coming from an artist like The Weeknd.
Baby, show me you’re a keeper
It’s been hard for me to keep up
You’ve been tryna keep me in the dark
But, baby girl, I see you
The bridge contains mostly throwaway lyrics that attempt to recreate the cleverness of the chorus but don’t quite land as well. But it’s worth noting including a bridge in the first place also helps distinguish “True Colors” as a quintessential R&B song (young songwriters, please, for the love of the R&B Gods, start including bridges in your songs).
The subject matter of this track, an alluring woman’s past life and rumors attached to her reputation, would have sounded completely different at any other point in The Weeknd’s career. If the song had been written a few years earlier, the lyrics would have taken a distasteful turn scored by overly serious production, as the singer would have worn pessimism and drug-addled detachment as badges of honor. If it’d been written a few years later, now that The Weeknd’s a galaxy-brained Billboard king who’s become obsessed with his own mortality, the song would have been constructed in a way that’d sound pleasant but would express ideas far too morbid for the retail stores it’d terrorize.
“True Colors” is a perfect song written at a perfect time. Unapologetically, I enjoy The Weeknd’s last three albums (Dawn FM, After Hours, and Starboy) a great deal more than his first three mixtapes. That’s mostly because I think he’s a better singer, smarter writer, and more ambitious curator when he’s attempting to be a pop star than when he’s trying to be a genre-fluid rockstar. My journey with him, though, began with this quaint little R&B song that I’ll always hold in high regard.