Review | The Weeknd - After Hours
On After Hours, The Weeknd is scared of himself. Or at least, the man he “used to be”.
Since before The Weeknd was even a name bubbling up in the underground Toronto music scene, he was writing songs about his copious drug usage, promiscuity that borders on depraved and a downright lack of care towards other people, specifically the woman in his life. The irony is that people fell in love with him for it. And sure, “The Weeknd” is in part a fictitious creation - we can’t expect that Abel Tesfaye is really the person he portrays in his music. But at the same time, this isn’t drawn from out of thin air either. Regardless of how much truth it holds, it’s clearly been difficult to escape, whether that be in terms of pure addiction or countless fans crying out for the ‘old Weeknd’.
After Hours sees The Weekend stuck at an emotional crossroads. Against better judgment, he’s trying to hold onto a toxic relationship that’s hanging by a thread, in fear that it’s the only thing holding him from reverting to the hedonistic lifestyle that he tried so hard to get away from. Amid the glitzy production, and Abel’s ever-flawless vocals, it’s this internal conflict that makes this album so fascinating, especially because it’s a consistent narrative through-line. At times, he’s refreshingly mature; on “Hardest to Love” he takes the blame for the troubles in his relationship, on “Scared To Live” he encourages his partner to move on in fear of holding her back. As someone who has so often been ambivalent about the consequences of his actions, it seems as if The Weeknd has finally realised that not only does it hurt the people he gets close to, but also that he himself might be the biggest victim of it. The man who grew to prominence by proudly welcoming people into his world of debauchery is now scared of himself.
Even when he regresses to usual subject matter, it’s more purposeful. Take the lead single “Heartless” for example. Its hybrid of '80s synths and trap drum patterns, courtesy of Metro Boomin, was somewhat uncharted territory for The Weeknd but felt like a shiny, new exterior for an existing model upon release. “Never need a bitch / I’m what a bitch needs” is very much the palatable self-aware toxic masculinity that The Weeknd has been serving up for almost a decade. But in the context of the album, the song plays more as a heartbreak-driven acceptance of an inability to change. This is him going back to his old ways, with the menacing synthesizer colliding with the reverb-heavy background vocals to create the sense of an unescapable mania.
Tesfaye’s love for that big screen is apparent. In this album's rollout, he’s released three music videos and a short film which all follow on from each other, documenting intoxicated exploits amongst the Vegas lights. The costume he wears throughout has been extended to his live television performances. He even made his acting debut in last year’s Uncut Gems, which feels increasingly like an inspiration beyond the collaborations with the film’s composer Oneohtrix Point Never. It is no wonder then that After Hours is littered with references to previous songs to enhance this idea of cohesive storytelling. The song “After Hours” calls back to sentiments about where he feels at home that are featured on the anxiety-ridden opener “Alone Again” and the drum and bass-influenced “Hardest to Love”. Also on the title track, the lyrics “I turned into the man I used to be”, an idea he rejected on the earlier “Scared to Love”. “Faith” sees The Weeknd give a haunting insight into his addictions, where the drug-fuelled antics of previous song “Heartless” carry over, leading him to overdose in the back of an ambulance. On the song’s outro, backed by sirens and a choir of his own vocals, he repeats, “I ended up in the back of a flashing car / With the city shining on my face / The lights are blinding me again” which, you guessed it, transitions into the next song “Blinding Lights”. It’s impeccable sequencing and a testament to how much thought has gone into the album that it’s both sonically and thematically cinematic.
The Weeknd in Uncut Gems.
In his discography, After Hours is most comparable to 2013’s Kiss Land. It similarly features a sweeping soundscape, and the Blade Runner-inspired album was an initial delve into the synth-based production that is so prominent here. It also feels like this is the first time since then that hasn’t seen Tesfaye chasing the Michael Jackson comparisons that have followed his career. Despite that, this album still has mainstream appeal, in part because The Weeknd is mainstream, even if for a while he didn’t fully realise his superstar status. He doesn’t need to go into the studio with the mindset to make a chart-topping hit, it will just happen (as "Blinding Lights" has shown). That’s not at the sacrifice of quality either, the electro-pop grooves of “In Your Eyes” are just as danceable as anything from Starboy while being as good as any song After Hours has to offer. Which is really saying something, because this might the strongest project The Weeknd has ever put out.
Best Songs: After Hours, In Your Eyes