January 12, 2019. The Weekend took to Twitter with four simple words one day after the release of his latest Gesaffelstein collaboration, “Lost In The Fire.” These words solidified a few things: how aware he is of himself, his knowledge of what people desire to hear from him and that we ought to prepare for the music that was coming in the near future. It may just be everything we ever wanted. Well, even if it took one year, two months, and 8 days since this post, he kept his commitment. Just last week, we received After Hours.
There is such a thing as being a victim of your own success. We’ve seen countless artists begin their careers adored by fans for either reminding them of themselves or delivering a groundbreaking debut project. For the House of Balloons artist, it happened to be both. His early minimalist music conveyed a broken man making it through life with his vices. The Weeknd was one of us, and he sang his ass off too. The connection established in the Trilogy era is unbreakable, for better or worse. Even if his newer content has been great and shown the growth of an artist entering a new stratosphere, for a segment of his fans, Trilogy remains the first love that they never forget and always compare the next one to. His new sounds have seemingly created the fear that he may have lost his common touch.
After Hours, The Weeknd’s fourth studio album does not deviate much from his typical subject matter. There are musings surrounding women, pain, and feeling lost. “I’ve been the hardest to love/You’re tryna let me go/And I can see it,” he says on the vibrant “Hardest To Love.” He continues later with “I don’t feel it anymore/This house I bought is not a home/Together we are so alone/Don’t regret the day we met/Don’t forget the time we spent/Forget that we’re in different beds/I know.” This doesn’t sound too heartless.
Instead of sinking deep into his trauma and treating others wrong as a result, he’s more in control and bursting out anew. He packages these emotionally-centered messages in a myriad of fresh sounds, namely R&B ballads, Pop jams, and Electronic bangers. While there may be some sonic parallels to Beauty Behind The Madness or Starboy, this doesn’t feel like desperate mimicry. He doesn’t have to cling to anything. Rather, this well-balanced mixed bag is the next step in a steady progression. He continues to get better.
Producers Metro Boomin, Illangelo, and Max Martin bring out a different side of The Weeknd, crafting immersive arenas for him to either zoom through or float over. It’s especially interesting seeing the progression of his working relationship with long-time partner Illangelo, who had been around since the Uncut Gems actor got his start. He rules his own musical universe, and these geniuses help him add new dimensions within it. After Hours is very much so still “mood music” but it’s like a large bag of Starburst in comparison to his early works resembling the stick of 12. He gives a variety of sounds for listeners, and it is on them to decide what their yellows are here. Come on, we know that’s the worst flavor.
Choosing standout tracks is a difficult task. Everything up to the lead single “Heartless”, the first of which we encounter at track number seven, is excellent. The opener “Alone Again” was a reminder that The Weeknd belongs in that “best two-part song makers” conversation. The way that song moves and he duplicates the climactic vocal runs from the first half in a sped-up way in the second half is utter madness.
The sequencing is fluid, with impeccable transitions from “Snowchild” to “Escape From LA” and from “Faith” to the second single, “Blinding Lights.” It was pleasing that the singles fell more toward the back half of the project, with “Blinding Lights” at number nine and “After Hours” at thirteen. Even in being the songs that may have had the most commercial appeal, they didn’t feel solely intended that way due to fitting so well into the album’s overall structure. The familiarity with these singles could have skewed how the full body of work was received if not for this sensible arrangement.
Abel has been reliable when it comes to making long records worth sitting through for his entire career. He captures you into a certain trance then hits you over the head with drums or belting vocals. We had already had time to sit with the title track and third single, but “Escape From LA” and “Faith” are powerful in their own right. Like Frank Ocean said, “The best song wasn’t the single.” The final minute of “Faith” is ear candy though he’s detailing ending up in the back of a police car. It’s a beautifully brief yet fear-inducing moment. Also, you have to mention “Escape From LA” giving us the iconic line “She’s a cold-hearted bitch with no shame/But her throat too fire.” Send her resume.
The 1–2 punch of the mid-tempo “Snowchild” and “Escape From LA” hint at his disdain for the City of Angels several times. He’s feeling out of place, and his past continues to haunt him. “If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t sleep/I can’t sleep.” On the surface, it appears he’s on top of the world as one of the biggest artists of today. Inside, there’s more to the story. It’s not easy compromising who you used to be with who you are becoming. There have been clear growing pains over the course of his career, both on his end and the fans.
When you look at the commercial success the XO artist has had over the last five years, it is hard to picture a space where people would take issue with him or what he has given. 2015 was a breakthrough year with Beauty Behind The Madness topping the charts and going on to win a Grammy. “Earned It” appeared on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack and exposed the weird-haired Toronto boy to an entirely new audience.
As his life changed, the music changed. The Weeknd is another example of how the delivery of something can hinder how the person hearing it receives the actual message. The difference between Trilogy and Starboy is a matter of his music sounding happier, yet 2016’s Starboy was the most polarizing of his catalog. Singles “Starboy,” “False Alarm,” and “I Feel It Coming” had a different feel, as did his overall bright and colorful rollout.
The project ended up being his longest at 18 tracks and the largest outlier in terms of going full “pop,” to the people. Somewhere along the way, music having pop appeal became a negative thing for our artists to achieve. Capturing mainstream attention and working to maintain it is now often seen as “selling out.” Nonetheless, the album performed nearly just as well as BBTM, also earning a Grammy.
It’s not so simple for The Weeknd to be who he used to be. When you’ve made it to what is your proverbial end of the tunnel, why would you turn around and walk back into the dark? Can you? Will it be the same? I reckon he’s got more he wants to accomplish, and that means continuing to go forward. Now 2018’s 6-pack My Dear Melancholy, felt like an attempt to turn back time, and he stuck the landing where applicable. Still, “Try Me,” “Wasted Times,” and “Hurt You” felt more like the new Abel than the old in terms of sonics. This is perfectly okay because those records were solid and his message came across clearly.
After Hours feels like an artist who gets it. He rights his Starboy wrongs by shortening this tracklist and opting to have no features. He stays true to himself but provides a sound for all. “Repeat After Me (Interlude)” with the church organs and similar opening to Drake’s “Feel No Ways” might be an all-time Weeknd record. Saying “You don’t love him, you’re just fuckin’, it means nothing to me” and then calling for the woman to repeat after him…wow. It’s almost like a better-produced, newer iteration of “Till Dawn (Here Comes The Sun).” “Snowchild” also feels like a stripped-down cousin of “Reminder” but it allows the flows he gets off to command the song more. We have to acknowledge him saying “She never need a man, she what a man needs” on the same album he says that about himself. Duality.
The title makes sense. You can’t experience what he does or say the things he says when the sun is out. The Weeknd is just an older, more mature and more composed version of himself. He’s challenging his abilities and creating unique worlds with every project. No more daytime music. This is for the late-night drive on a bright highway when one text goes green and another is left on seen. It’s a race against himself, and he isn’t looking to fall behind any time soon. The Weeknd rules the after hours.