The Weeknd unlocks a cinematic creative vision on his return to the spotlight.
It was hard to predict an alternative R&B pioneer from Toronto would become one of the biggest pop stars of the generation. Abel Tesfaye introduced the world to his mystique with the 2011 trio of mixtapes House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, all critically-acclaimed and influential in the new wave of R&B. His major label debut Kiss Land was misunderstood at its time of release but has gone on to be his most daring studio album. Superstardom arrived at Beauty Behind the Madness but came with a creative lull with 2016’s Starboy, the singer’s last studio album. The Weeknd continues to be his reclusive self outside to the music, but he insists this ‘next chapter’ is worth the four-year wait.
After Hours is Abel’s best effort at fusing radio-friendly hits with his desolated pen, forging one of the most compelling records of the year.
The direction is clear as ever on After Hours, possessing an uninterrupted musical and thematic identity. Themes of celebrity lifestyle are borrowed from Starboy but refined in a cohesive, consistent manner, fleshed out to its full potential. The Daft Punk electro-pop template is ditched in favour of vintage 80s synths (“Blinding Lights”, “In Your Eyes”), drum and bass (“Hardest to Love”) and UK garage (“Too Late”). These production choices provide valour to The Weeknd’s desperate attempts at a second chance, a sense of personal clarity that’s never been as transparent until now.
What navigates the core of After Hours is its underlying narrative. Its events take place in Las Vegas (aka. Sin City), which is not too far from Los Angeles. There are two personas of Abel on After Hours. One is the true Abel, regretful of his break-up with Bella Hadid. He owns up to his mistakes, is fed up of the Hollywood lifestyle and yearns to go back to Toronto. The other persona is consumed by the drugs and the Hollywood lifestyle that he’s forced to live. Throughout After Hours, The Weeknd tries to get his ex-lover back, but his efforts are all in vein by the end of the album.
TRACK BY TRACK BREAKDOWN
The Weeknd’s serenades are contrasted brilliantly with the upbeat production. “Too Late” takes a page out of My Dear Melancholy with its similarity to “Wasted Times”. It is an avenue we’ve heard The Weeknd in but this time the level of lyrical engagement is at its peak. “Hardest to Love” is one of the many sweetened checkpoints in the tracklist and offers one of the album’s best hooks.
These moments compliment the sombre tracks, such as “Snowchild” and “Escape from LA”. The former track is reminiscent of “Reminder” and “Sidewalks”, minimal in its production but yields the most conversational attitude of the album. “Escape from LA” heightens the album’s narrative through Metro Boomin’s skittering hi-hats and a sinister second-half switch that sucks the light out of the room. It is dark enough to make the blood on Abel’s face in the album cover run cold.
“Faith” fuses both the sombre and the upbeat, strapping eardrums into a 100mph pilgrimage of destruction and darkness. The haunting outro induces goosebumps, one of many expressive segues across the 14 tracks.
However nothing is quite like the album’s title track, a six-minute masterpiece heralded for The Weeknd’s history book. Structurally the song is a progressive ballad that begins in the form of quiet storm and gradually grows into an electro-warping cry. It is Abel at his most intimate, gentle and defeated.
Granted, the production choices can lead to moments of similarity, particularly the synth arrangements across various songs (“Blinding Lights”, “In Your Eyes” ,”Save Your Tears”). Luckily they are differentiated enough to treat the fourteen songs as individual pieces.
What lack the most are The Weeknd’s addictive choruses and soaring vocals. Abel rarely hits any powerful moments vocally, opting to sing in a reclusive manner. It leads to melodies and hooks that are not as addictive as songs from the likes of Kiss Land and Beauty Behind the Madness. Songs such as “Save Your Tears” and “Scared to Live” are the biggest victims to the flat hooks.
Bonus track “Nothing Compares” rectifies these two issues. The Weeknd’s vocals reach a level of beauty incomparable to the rest of the album, harmonising pitch-perfect over the hook’s towering horns. “Missed You” is by-the-numbers lyrically but there is the signature nocturnal aura The Weeknd is known for. “Final Lullaby” is a nimble electronic ballad also carried by bassy synths, although lyrically it is another weak point in the bonus tracks. Despite their simplicity they add another layer to the complexity of The Weeknd’s mysterious breakup.
For an artist with many secrets, a bank of clues lie within The Weeknd’s After Hours. It is a cohesive, cinematic collection of pop music with integrity. The songwriting has advanced, opening the gate for The Weeknd’s inner struggles to become clearer than they’ve ever been.
Rating: 9 / 10
Favourite tracks: “After Hours”, “Faith”, “Heartless”, “In Your Eyes”, “Repeat After Me”, “Hardest to Love”, “Escape from LA” (+ “Nothing Compares”)
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