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.