The Weeknd outdoes himself on '80s-influenced ‘After Hours’
Synthesizer-dominated alternative R&B record proves to be career highlight
Album: “After Hours”
Artist: The Weeknd
Release Date: March 20
The Weeknd the world knew and loved four years ago is shifting his image yet again.
In the nearly four years since his last full length record, “Starboy,” Abel Tesfaye has been relatively quiet. Aside from his 2018 EP “My Dear Melancholy,” the only other art-related project he involved himself in was the Safdie Brothers-directed thriller “Uncut Gems,” which starred Adam Sandler.
But it seems like The Weeknd has taken his experiences working on the movie to heart.
The film (in which he cameoed as himself circa 2012), with its mystical synth-coated soundtrack by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) and distinctively gritty yet neon-soaked nightlife aesthetic, created a world that must have influenced Tesfaye’s new record, “After Hours.”
“After Hours” sounds like Tesfaye put the setting of “Uncut Gems” to music. The synthesizers are vast and all consuming, evoking a city that never sleeps. Combined with The Weeknd’s distinctive vocal style and melodies, it makes for the best album of his career.
“After Hours” can be divided smoothly in half. The first half (mostly) sees The Weeknd operating in “business-as-usual” mode. Most of the tracks feature his signature sound: nocturnal modern synth instrumentals behind booming trap drums with Tesfaye crooning about love lost and self-awareness of personal problems he chooses not to solve.
Opener “Alone Again” is the strongest example of this formula, with strong vocal melodies soaring on top of an instrumental meant for cruising a big city at 3 a.m.
This leads to the album hitting a minor slump starting with “Snowchild” and lasting until “Faith.” They come across as filler, and while these tracks have the shining synthesizers that dominate the record and Tesfaye’s immaculate voice, they drag on and don’t do anything that other tracks on the album don’t do better.
Only tracks “Hardest to Love,” with its skittering drum-and-bass sound, and “Scared to Live,” with its slow-dance-ballad energy, break this formula in the first half. But these early highlights in the tracklisting merely predict what is still to come.
At the end of “Faith,” The Weeknd sings among a soundscape of droning synthesizers and police sirens (“I ended up in the back of a flashing car, with the city shining on my face, the lights are blinding me again”) and with that, the album transitions seamlessly into its second half.
Starting with “Blinding Lights,” Tesfaye takes a departure from his usual sounds and embraces the sounds of synthwave, dance-pop, synth-funk and various other styles which saw their heyday in –– or take most of their influence from –– the ‘80s. It is impossible not to compare it to the nocturnal, neon-lit atmosphere of “Uncut Gems,” and it is in this second half where the album truly shines.
“Blinding Lights,” sounds straight out of the film “Drive,” and features one of the brightest instrumentals The Weeknd has ever sung over. The lyrical content on the track (as well as generally throughout the album) is nothing new, especially for Tesfaye, but it fits the nocturnal and futuristic lifestyle that the album attempts to capture.
The next two tracks, “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears” are also album highlights, sounding like lost ‘80s FM radio hits updated for the modern listener. Even the title track showcases Tesfaye singing over an ever-changing instrumental that references various moody electronic styles and it shines as yet another highlight in his discography.
This section of the album is a startling evolution in sound for The Weeknd, one that is completely welcome as it breathes new life into his style while retaining what makes The Weeknd who he is.
“After Hours” does go out with a bit of whimper on the quiet “Until I Bleed Out,” which does nothing to stand out in the tracklisting, but the abundance of highlights more than makes up for this small disappointment.
Through strong writing, fantastic singing and an aesthetic change, The Weeknd created the best album of his career with “After Hours.” It is a shining example of how good pop and R&B can be without sacrificing hit potential and may very well be the best album to hit the mainstream since Frank Ocean’s “Blonde.”
Alex Whetham is the Senior Arts Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @alexo774