The Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House Of Balloons, came out almost exactly nine years ago. Arguably no other artist of the 2010s emerged with such a fully-formed aesthetic. The Toronto-born Abel Tesfaye not only introduced the concept of alternative R&B, but gave its melodic, druggy disembodiment an inimitable sense of cool.
In fact, he emerged so fully formed that his subsequent major-label albums - 2014’s Kiss Land, 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, 2016’s Starboy - sometimes felt watered-down as a result. Abel Tesfaye was scoring pop hits, becoming an arena-headlining star, and a reluctant celebrity - dragged into the spotlight through his oft-public relationships with Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid. Now newly 30, After Hours is The Weeknd’s seventh album. As the title suggests, if all the depravity that came before just was the daytime, how dark could this album possibly get?
The first single, last November’s Heartless, was a clear sign that Tesfaye was back on his bullshit: “Sellin’ dreams to these girls with their guard down.../ And I’m back to my ways ’cause I’m heartless!” Still, the song itself sounded new; the way the beat repeatedly stops and revs up again. Blinding Lights followed two days later, with synths and drums styled after a-ha’s Take On Me - one of his brightest, poppiest songs ever.
Abel Tesfaye’s raw vocal and musical talent has always been obvious - so much so that it can overwhelm his albums’ broader vision. That’s not a concern on After Hours. The concept is simple - his trademark smooth, anthemic R&B melodies over ’80s-inspired synthpop. But the execution is extraordinary in its attention to detail, with a murderer’s row of alternative-pop producers - Metro Boomin, Illangelo, Oneohtrix Point Never, Kevin Parker - alongside the great Max Martin. Every song is studio-polished to perfection, yet even the major-key songs have the darker undertones we crave from The Weeknd.
On paper, After Hours’ lyrics can seem like the same old toxic-romance schtick - but the album’s shift in sonic palette informs everything about it. The Weeknd’s tracks used to wallow, circling a drain of misery. On Can’t Feel My Face, he learned to dance via disco and funk. On After Hours, he’s running... on that endless neon highway. Synthwave and outrun music have been in fashion for almost a decade now - equally inspired by Giorgio Moroder, The Chromatics, and the Drive soundtrack. The Weeknd brings an actual sense of emotional progression to a much-overdone subgenre; even the drumless, synth-driven tracks feel propulsive. Too Late and Hardest To Love incorporate skittering UK garage and drum & bass beats - a first in Tesfaye’s discography.
The question is: is Abel Tesfaye running to, or from, his true self? The thrilling, uncomfortable tension of his music comes from trying to separate reality from fiction. How depraved is he really? After Hours’ songs bounce between temptation and the search for redemption. Repeat After Me’s chorus mantra is insistent, terrifying: “You don’t love him, you’re just fucking / You’re just fucking, it means nothing to me…” On Escape From LA, the album’s six-minute centrepiece, Tesfaye at first offers unconditional love: “’Cause I got everything I wanted / Got the money, got the cars… / But I’d be nothing without you.” But in the song’s haunting coda, he’s back to the usual debauchery and hedonism: “We had sex in the studio... / LA girls all look the same / I can’t recognise.”
In last year’s Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ Adam Sandler-headed crime thriller, The Weeknd plays himself in 2012 - a narcissistic coke fiend who will absolutely steal your girl. Though he never winks at the camera, it’s become clearer than ever that he’s playing a character; that there is a morality behind the madness. In the album’s artwork, music videos, and late-night performances so meticulous they could double as studio clips, Tesfaye dons a costume - sunglasses at night, mustache, tailored red suit. He runs through Vegas like a man possessed… is he our sympathetic protagonist, or the slasher-film villain?
The video for In Your Eyes seems to answer that question. Over the song’s completely unironic ’80s sax, he stalks a woman through a club with almost comedic ominousness. Tesfaye’s often sung about disembodied women, but this time, he gives her agency. She gets revenge - decapitating him with an axe, then dancing joyfully with his severed head.
So is it ironic that his music’s become more sensitive? On After Hours, The Weeknd is no longer hiding behind the cool, detached sheen of his aesthetic. The self-loathing is still there, but the lyrics have shifted to addressing his very real romantic regrets. By the end of the album, he’s forced to choose. On the title track, a career highlight, he commits: “This time, I’ll never leave / I wanna share babies.” But as the album closes with Until I Bleed Out: “I just want it out of my life / I keep telling myself I don’t need it anymore.” Is he singing about women, drugs, or the concept of love itself?
’80s nostalgia, self-loathing R&B songs about money and fame - they’ve all been done to death. But After Hours so easily redefines The Weeknd that it feels like the album has always existed; like we’ve always known this version of him. After almost a decade, he’s fully synthesised the aesthetic grandeur of Trilogy with the pop sensibility of the second half of his career.
The Weeknd’s music used to be thrilling for how dark and depraved it could get… but it was only a matter of time before we got desensitised. Now, what’s thrilling is how the glimpses of optimism are getting brighter. When pop culture feels like it’s forcing you to smile, nihilism can be truthful. But in the long run, now more than ever, we need so much more.