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As we tread through the brisker months of the year, it's only natural that one's emotional and mental state can at times become downtrodden and weary, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that's currently ravaging the globe. Couple that with mandated and self-imposed isolation for months on end, catching a case of the feels has become par for the course, no pun intended.
That said, Rah-C has just what the doctor ordered, with the newcomer's debut album, An Unsurfaced Melancholy. The project finds him mirroring the signs of the times with music tailor-made to soundtrack your modern-day existential crisis. The follow-up to The Format, which was released earlier this year, An Unsurfaced Melancholy marks the next chapter in his progression as an artist, as the brazen lyricist is back for the first time, with a revamped approach and vocal style first teased on his previous single, "Whole Life." Produced by Rah-C and Identite Crisis in its entirety, the album begins with "Sooner or Later," an introductory cut that doubles as one of the more upbeat salvos on the album. Layering feathery vocals atop fluttery synths, the New York native vaguely recounts drunken nights in Denver, as he revels in his zest for living in the moment. From there, the tempo gets ratcheted up a few notches with "Back from My Lowest," an airy groove that captures him refusing to wilt beneath the weight of his shortcomings.
Drawing from his lyrical prowess, Rah-C kicks a couple of bars on "Lightning Stuck in a Bottle," which slightly misses the mark due to a grating backdrop, but regains his footing with "It Won't Matter in the End," a sublime offering that finds him in the crosshairs of the law. While An Unsurfaced Melancholy presents an ample amount of intriguing offerings, one that encapsulates the best of what the multi-dimensional crooner has to offer comes in the form of "Over Exposed," which is powered by robust production and stellar songwriting. Musing, "Hearing sweet words from your lips/And my fingertips linger with the taste of you/It causes tooth decay," Rah-C's experience as a seasoned lyricist is as evident as ever, as his clever quips leave the listener with a bit of food for thought to chew on.
In addition to showcasing his talents behind the mic and the boards, Rah-C's musicianship gets put to the forefront with "Til the Embers," a string-laden salvo on which he does work with an acoustic guitar, accounting for one of the more heartfelt compositions on the album. After waxing poetic about the days of yesteryear amid a flurry of rhyme spills on "Nostalgia, The Drug," the proceedings are closed out with "How To Break Free," which captures its host asking the complex questions life tosses us while providing his own answers on the road to peace and happiness.
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First hitting the scene on the strength of his skills as a wordsmith, An Unsurfaced Melancholy finds Rah flipping the script, returning back for the first time with new wrinkles to his artistry and a promising future ahead of him. Flexing the breadth of his abilities as a songwriter, producer, and composer over the album's ten tracks, Rah-C shines brightly, serving up a change of pace with An Unsurfaced Melancholy, which is sure to add an extra bit of brightness to listeners' day after giving it a spin.
On the cover of The Weeknd’s new album After Hours, the Canadian singer leers at the viewer from above, brandishing a red suit, diamond earrings, and a face covered in blood. It’s an image that suggests Andrew W.K. with a Fairlight instead of a Stratocaster, or the protagonist of Eraserhead if he was aroused, rather than repulsed, by the squirmy sexual thoughts in his subconscious. While the singer born Abel Tesfaye has previously adorned his projects with oblique facial expressions, if he shows his face at all, here it’s clear he’s in the middle of something dangerous, and he’s loving it. After Hours invites listeners to ride shotgun on a hedonistic, nocturnal odyssey, the best Weeknd album yet.
Tesfaye first rose to prominence in 2011 by anonymously self-releasing three mixtapes, later collected into Trilogy by label Republic Records. The early Weeknd projects showcased an irresistible sound that paired Tesfaye’s lean and powerful voice with trap and cloud rap beats, left-field indie rock samples, and unflinching lyrics about sex, drugs, and the hazy overlap between the two. Tesfaye’s sound and subject matter were derided as hipster-baiting “PBR&B,” a short-sighted classification that also latched onto ascendant contemporaries like Miguel, Frank Ocean, and How To Dress Well.
But in the ensuing decade, The Weeknd moved closer to the pop mainstream via 50 Shades of Grey tie-ins, Daft Punk collabs, and unabashed MJ imitations. And pop’s center of gravity shifted towards the drugged-out melancholy exhibited by The Weeknd and his rapper peers like Future and Drake. It was a stylistic sea change that culminated with Billie Eilish, not yet old enough to buy cigarettes, sweeping the Grammys with a debut album that whispered about substance abuse and mental health issues over thumping beats.
The most striking thing about After Hours is the minimal presence of hip-hop across its 14 tracks. ATL super-producer Metro Boomin is credited on four songs, but his work is most noticeable on lead single “Heartless.” Metro deploys the same drum fill in the verses and refrains to build tension, similar to a pattern heard on recent hits like “Thotiana” and “Act Up.” If that’s too subtle, Tesfaye also shouts the producer out in the lyrics, intoning “Metro Boomin turn this ho into a moshpit” in a melodic rap flow.
Tesfaye comes closest to straight-up rapping on “Snowchild.” On an album without any credited features, Tesfaye acts as his own guest rapper. It’s basically his version of a Drake track, using a mellow instrumental to deliver self-aggrandizing juxtaposition between his humble beginnings and his current excess. “Cali was the mission” but now he’s leaving, Tesfaye raps in a reference to 2011’s “The Morning.” He’s far from the first writer to use California as a symbol, but this allusion is a powerful way to show him transcending his own youthful dreams.
The majority of After Hours is lush ‘80s synth-pop, with big synths and bigger drums. It’s a sound The Weeknd has incorporated throughout his career, and it continues to be a fitting sonic shorthand for the excesses of his lyrics. “In Your Eyes” is an electro-disco song packed with enough aural embellishments that to list them requires a full Stefon voice: Chic-esque rhythm guitar, victorious trumpet riffs, Daft Punk-esque robotic vocals, and a full-on saxophone solo on the outro. I was astonished that a song this sublime wasn’t released as a single, only for its video to drop this Monday.
“Scared To Live,” which debuted on The Weeknd’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance, is a full-on power ballad. Swedish pop craftsman Max Martin and Brooklyn electronica architect Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never are both credited, but the final product falls much closer to the former; a listener can practically see the disco ball spinning over a gaggle of youths at their prom’s last dance as Tesfaye urges “don’t be scared to live again.” The song Interpolates the iconic chorus of Elton John’s “Your Song” as a cherry on top, a pop star hedonist paying homage to a predecessor.
After Hours takes place over one night in Las Vegas, as Tesfaye’s narrator indulges in sex and drugs until the sun rises and he’s sick of both. When the album starts with “Alone Again,” he’s already near overdose, demanding a companion to “check [his] pulse for a second time.” It’s not the sort of narrative that requires a dedicated subreddit to parse (though some college freshman is likely grasping at lyrical straws at this very moment), but rather a loose frame to guide the album’s structure. On the conclusion of “Faith,” skyscraper guitars and sirens leave a wide-open space for the dance beat of the following track “Blinding Lights.” The expert sequencing keeps the album from dragging though it runs nearly an hour.
The details of the plot aren’t important; it’s likely the same story every night. The lyrics on After Hours stick to the typical Weeknd tropes. Tesfaye sings about being cross-faded on an irresponsible mix of sex and drugs and death. Sometimes love joins the party too.
The most quintessential Weeknd lyrics can feel sophomoric or profound, depending on your mood and mental state, and “Faith” is full of them. The first verse invokes lost faith, purple rain, molly, cocaine, and blunts in the span of seconds. In the second, Tesfaye chirps “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me.” Which is likely a Tumblr post already.
The feeling of doomed romance adds sizable emotional depth to The Weeknd’s songs. It helps offset the callousness of lines like “So much pu**y, it be falling out the pocket.” Still, it’s an easier listen than some of the imagery from his Trilogy era, where his decidedly less lucid narrators boasted “if she stops, then I might get violent.”
Though the dubious morality in his early work prompted plenty of discussion, ties between Tesfaye’s real life and his on-record persona have rarely been noteworthy. Fellow pop stars like Ariana Grande or Beyonce build the details of their biography into their work, but The Weeknd works best as a cypher. Some are surely trying to interpret a complaint about LA girls with “the same work done on they face” as a reference to one of Tesfaye’s exes, but sometimes a showbiz cliche is just a showbiz cliche.
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Tesfaye’s own chemical intake is equally irrelevant to his actual music. He recently told CR he has an “off-and-on relationship” with drugs, promising he performs completely sober. He’s also a world-famous pop singer responding to questions via email, so that statement requires a few grains of salt. But who cares about drawing fact from fiction when his music still oozes The Weeknd’s narcotic charm? After all, he begins the album singing “I’m living someone else’s life.”
Tesfaye has yet to release a project that’s truly all killer no filler. (2018’s My Dear Melancholy comes closest.) “Save Your Tears” dives too deep into ‘80s pastiche with chintzy keyboards on their default settings that fail to elevate a generic melody. The album’s early tracks flirt with interesting grooves – house on “Too Late,” drum and bass on “Hardest To Love” – but they’re forgettable. The album doesn’t really gain momentum until “Scared To Love,” 12 minutes in. And though they recur throughout the album, the repetition doesn’t grant cliches “This house is not a home” and “alone together” any actual significance.
Still, After Hours is the best Weeknd project yet. The music, courtesy of a murderer’s row of producers, sounds expansive as it is expensive. The narrative arc keeps the album from feeling as bloated as Starboy or Beauty Behind The Madness.
I had been social distancing for a week on After Hours’ release date. This past weekend I also found time to re-watch Uncut Gems, the 2019 Safdie Brothers thriller that featured Tesfaye playing his 2012 self. Amidst the relentless pace of the protagonist’s gambling, the scenes I enjoyed the most were in transit. Forget the crowded nightclub or the jewelry store, I yearned for cab rides between destinations on a neon night.
The Weeknd’s music has always been an avatar for all the listener’s hedonistic fantasies, but Tesfaye couldn’t have known that his latest album would debut in a world where we hesitate to come within six feet of each other, nevermind share pills and lines in bathroom stalls. On After Hours, the fantasy is as seductive as ever.
The depth of Jhene Aiko’s imagination is bold enough to conjure caution but warm enough to wade in. The R&B songstress, who routinely combines hypnotic poetic flare with bare-skinned sensuality, has made a career of evaluating then celebrating her complexity. Her 2013 debut EP, Sail Out, introduced the world to a woman claiming stake in the same vulnerability that she was expected to run from. Aiko’s first full-length album, Souled Out, came exactly one year later and dove deeper into existentialist thought. Avoiding the dreaded curse of the sophomore slump was light work with a release like Trip, released by the singer in 2017. Like the title implies, escapism served as the nucleus of the project with Aiko testing the waters of chemical experimentation.
For some, it’s been easy to write off her catalog as pure melodrama; a young girl hyperbolizing every personal experience and relationship to drum up intrigue and keep the spotlight solely on her. Her first two albums, while breaths of fresh air in the R&B realm, felt more jovial than weighty. They prioritized flowery ornateness over gravity—but that’s not to say they didn’t have an impact. Aiko’s lyrical stylings have infinitely shaped the genre’s newest crop of singers. From SZA to Summer Walker, there’s no doubt that her discography ensured that these women could be audacious and explicit on their tracks yet still experience success.
Aiko—like any artist—is evolving and growing into her power with every creative endeavor. However, she is the most remarkable when she is venomous, when she is unapologetic, and when she is feeling herself. Chilombo, her third album, is a culmination of all the lessons learned; where clarity reigns supreme and she has no problems owning up to her mistakes. The project, which pays homage to her surname (and by default, her heritage), was recorded in scenic Hawaii and finds Aiko trying to reclaim her center after a devastating heartbreak. She has always made transparency her strong suit, but Chilombo expounds on her candidness and shows that post-breakup, she is more comfortable with herself than ever before.
It also paints a much richer picture when it comes to Aiko’s totality. The introduction, “Lotus,” comes off as sonic serenity complete with lugubrious piano chords. However, the tale that Aiko is about to narrate serves as the opposite of tranquility: “There was a woman born from a Lotus/Her heart was golden, deep as the ocean/And then this one man, he came and broke it/’Til it was open, just like a Lotus/Oh, yes, there were explosions/She found her focus, the beast awoken.”
As the story unfolds, Aiko delves into her amorous dilemmas on her “Triggered (freestyle)” in which she gleefully trades in an amicable ending for pure revenge: “Cause when I get mad/I get big mad/Should have never did that, get back/’Bout to feel the wrath of a menace.” Her pleas go from contained to completely unyielding; the hurt and anger she’s experienced at the hands of a careless lover have seemingly laid the path for destruction. But on “B.S.,” featuring a cameo from H.E.R., she is way more cool and callous with her boasts because the same ex who scorned Aiko is practically non-existent: “I am on my own now/I am in control now/I need you to go now/I can fix my own crown.”
“Pu$$Y Fairy” is the artist relishing in the power of her own anatomy. For her, love and sexuality are inextricably linked and on this particular track, the chemistry her and a conquest possess is simply undeniable: “Cause I got you sprung off in the spring time/Fuck all your free time/You don’t need no me time/That’s you and me time/We be gettin’ so damn loud/That dick make my soul smile/That dick make me so damn proud.” The soundscapes are mellifluous on “Pu$$Y Fairy,” making Aiko’s proclamations that much more robust.
“Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E)”, alongside Future and Miguel, strives to be an ambitious anthem that empowers women to embrace their sexuality. It also encourages them to make that dreaded first move on a potential lover. However, a cliché chorus (“I hope she don’t think that I think she some kinda ho/I don’t care, that just lets me know that she knows what she wants)” coupled with Future likening himself to Jesus Christ makes the song feel too cheesy to stick. “10K Hours”, a collaboration with Nas, is a compelling—and slightly despondent—walk down memory lane. Once the rapper takes the reigns on his guest verse, it becomes apparent that he’s reminiscing about his former wife, Kelis: “Ten thousand hours turned to ten thousand bridal flowers/What was mine is ours/How many soulmates we get in this lifetime?/Right now’s the right time, you the wife kind.”
“Pray For You” stands out on Chilombo for an entirely different reason: it shows a moment of growth, acceptance for Aiko who has struggled with this notion throughout the entire album. Her ecclesiastical offerings are her purest form of selflessness: “But never will I ever not wish you well/Though we’re not together, God bless you still/It’s gonna get better/I know it will/Just hope you know, I still/I’ll pray for you.” “Lightening & Thunder” is a pure blues ballad about longing that John Legend accentuates with his grit and vehemence. However, Chilombo ends on a high note with “Party For Me.” By recruiting Ty Dolla $ign—one of hip hop’s most notorious hedonists—she truly drives home her quest to celebrate life while she can.
Chilombo, despite all of its ups and down, is about pain, resilience and growth. For Aiko, heartbreak has never sounded so intense, so all-encompassing, so arduous. But as she goes through the motions of misery, it’s clear that stepping into the woman she is meant to be actually becomes her saving grace. Aiko’s honest and gutsy approach to songwriting has always made her conspicuous, but her newest album reveals how it makes her whole. She basks in the limelight because of its warmth and the fact that she knows that she is never alone; her legion of loyal listeners continue to stand by her side knowing Aiko is as human as they are. And that will always be her most admirable trait: the way she wears—and covets—authenticity like a second skin.