Online editor Stephen Ong reviews The Weeknd’s latest album
After Hours is the culmination of a decade of The Weeknd’s career. In that time, he’s gone from an anonymous face in house parties in Toronto (“Cali is the mission” – ‘The Morning’), to one of the biggest pop stars in the world (“Cali was the mission” – ‘Tell Your Friends’), and now he’s ready to call it quits (“Cali was the mission but now a n**** leaving” – ‘Snowchild’). On After Hours, Abel Tesfaye drags us back in to his self-loathing indulgent world of sex and drugs, and he is about to leave the glamorous life of Los Angeles behind to return home to Toronto.
After Hours is the longest time The Weeknd has gone without releasing an album, and it combines the sounds of each of his eras; the druggy lofi music of his mixtapes on ‘Alone Again’, the expansive cinematics of Kiss Land on the title track, the synthpop of Starboy on ‘Blinding Lights’, while the heartbreak of My Dear Melancholy lingers on the album. A quick glance at the tracklist will tell you that this is undeniably a breakup album. With Max Martin on the poppier cuts, Metro Boomin providing more aggressive beats, Oneohtrix Point Never’s sparkling synths and longtime producer Illangelo, After Hours makes up for its lack of featured artists with immaculate production (save for the first two tracks where Tesfaye’s vocals are obscured to the point of unintelligibility).
[After Hours] combines the sounds of each of his eras
Most notable After Hours is its aesthetic, with the record taking its title from the Martin Scorsese film and the music videos borrowing elements from classics like Casino and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The music videos and performances of ‘Blinding Lights’ and ‘Heartless’ on Jimmy Kimmel maintain the image of him intoxicated, in a red suit and glasses, shielding his eyes from the lights. Tesfaye himself refers to this; mentioning the ‘Blinding Lights’ repeatedly (“We’re in Hell / It’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights”, “Always blinded by the desert lights”, “I’m blind”), making After Hours his most cohesive album since Kiss Land.
The first half of the record has Tesfaye reminiscing of a lover. Opener ‘Alone Again’ begins with his shedding of his Starboy persona (“Take off my disguise / I’m living someone else’s life”), and halfway through the song switches, introducing a trap beat and menacing synths that back his declaration, “I don’t know if I can be alone again”. The garage-influenced ‘Too Late’ is in the same vein, and is followed by the two most emotional songs on the album. ‘Hardest to Love’ is a fantastic drum and bass song that Tesfaye croons over with a captivating melody, and ‘Scared to Live’ is an 80s ballad interpolating Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, where Tesfaye regretfully admits, “I should have made you my only”.
A quick glance at the tracklist will tell you that this is undeniably a breakup album
‘Snowchild’ is an ode to Toronto, bringing back the eerie atmosphere that dominated the Trilogy era, addressing his rise to fame and his dislike of it (“I was never blessed with any patience / So a n**** leaving”). The similarly atmospheric ‘Escape from LA’ follows, where Tesfaye pleads to leave the irresistible city life for love (“Got the money, got the cars, got the ceiling with the stars / Got everything I wanted / But I’d be nothing without you”), claiming “this place will be the end of me”. However, ‘Heartless’ is a turning point on the record, and The Weeknd’s fragility, where he’s “back to [his] ways”, and the hazy mood of the previous songs shifts to a trap beat, where Tesfaye asserts, “Never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch need”, contrasting his lovesick attitude on ‘Snowchild’, “She never need a man, she what a man need”.
The second half of After Hours begins with a series of pop songs that rival Starboy’s best. ‘Faith’ continues the aggressiveness of ‘Heartless’, with Tesfaye singing “Now it’s time for me / To go back to my old ways”, referencing his love of drugs, firing shots at Drake (“I take half a Xan and I still stay awake”), and a declaration of love, in true The Weeknd fashion, “If I OD, I want you to OD right beside me”. The outro of ‘Faith’ segues into ‘Blinding Lights’, before going into the latest single, the disco ‘In Your Eyes’. This superb run of songs is completed by the nostalgic ‘Save Your Tears’, a cut about moving on that has the same effortless energy as the best pop songs.
After Hours makes up for its lack of featured artists with immaculate production
The album finally slows down with the interlude ‘Repeat After Me’, produced by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Over an instrumental that could have been an outtake from The Slow Rush, Tesfaye repeats, “You don’t love him, you’re just fucking”, but the song adds little to the overall album. The penultimate song, ‘After Hours’, returns to the moody sound of House of Balloons, and builds to a pulsating beat drop, over which The Weeknd confesses his apology to win a girl back. It’s one of his most impressive songs, and his typical romanticising of death (“without you I can’t breathe”) continues in the comedown of ‘Until I Bleed Out’, where Tesfaye compares forgetting a relationship to dying, a thematic (and sonic) continuation of Kiss Land’s ‘Tears in the Rain’.
The deluxe version of the record is filled out with three new songs, various remixes and an impressive live performance of ‘Scared to Live’. The new songs add a different dimension to the album; ‘Nothing Compares’ is the thrilling ready-made theme for a neo-noir film; ‘Missing You’ is a ballad with a trap beat that doesn’t get time to develop over its two-minute runtime; ‘Final Lullaby’ feels similarly incomplete as a song, but it brings the album full circle (“I’m home alone / My trauma alone”), and its muted synths and haunting vocals makes it the perfect closer for After Hours.
[After Hours] is The Weeknd’s most fully realised project since Kiss Land, with a complete aesthetic and narrative, and a consistent high quality of songs to match
While Chromatics’ remix of ‘Blinding Lights’, which gives the song their signature dark electronic sound, and Oneohtrix Point Never’s remix of ‘Save Your Tears’ are superb, the other remixes fall flat. Lil Uzi Vert’s verse on the vaporwave remix of ‘Heartless’ is a nice addition, but the song is shortened to the point of sounding incomplete, and The Blaze’s remix of ‘After Hours’ feels like an abridged remix for the radio, missing the drama that makes the title track one of his best. The remixes are a nice treat for fans, but nothing more.
After Hours is not a perfect album: ‘Too Late’ and ‘Repeat After Me’ are forgettable moments, and lyrics like “Futuristic sex, give her Philip K. Dick” are criminally bad, but The Weeknd’s singing is better than ever, and it is his most fully realised project since Kiss Land, with a complete aesthetic and narrative, and a consistent high quality of songs to match. Though After Hours is neither as enjoyable to listen to as Starboy, nor as alluring and unique as House of Balloons, the variety of songs mean there will be songs that appeal to fans of either album. Abel Tesfaye has found success in his beginning of merging the sounds of Trilogy and Starboy (as he attempted to do on My Dear Melancholy, or even earlier on ‘Wanderlust’), yet it is unclear how his sound will progress, with After Hours seemingly the end of a journey that he started a decade ago. Only one thing is for sure, and that is him remaining appealingly hedonistic.