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As the globe enters a frightening pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen for a hundred years, Abel Tesfaye is ready to spread darkness of his own. Though he’s been known to toe the line when it comes to toxicity in pop music, Abel’s latest album, After Hours isn’t particularly sinister or deadly — or at least not markedly more so than he’s been in the past — but it does come during a time when tensions are high and most listeners are more isolated than ever. The simmering, morose album is his fourth formal full-length release as The Weeknd, not counting the pioneering mixtape trilogy in 2011 that launched his career, the widely-praised House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence, or 2018’s brief seven-track EP, My Dear Melancholy,.
For those unfamiliar with his trajectory, Tesfaye followed up his 2013 major label debut, Kiss Land, with the one-two punch of Beauty Behind The Madness in 2015 and Starboy in 2016, effectively replacing his early label boss and mentor Drake as the top moody, R&B-leaning pop star of the late 2010s, hitting No. 1 with “The Hills” and the 2015 blackout jam “I Can’t Feel My Face,” and later racking up another No. 1 with the latter album’s title track, “Starboy.” This pair of releases led to The Weeknd’s peak mainstream acclaim – including an Album Of The Year nomination for Beauty — and resulted in back-to-back Grammys for Best Urban Contemporary Album.
After that bout of success, My Dear Melancholy, was a brief reprise, functioning as an intermission of sorts before last week’s After Hours officially opened up a new era for Tesfaye, one his camp has repeatedly dubbed Chapter 6. (The early EPs are chapter one, each prior full-length is a chapter, and so is the 2018 EP, making this his sixth musical phase). This record is a return to earlier, sleepier sounds and an obsession over bad behavior and tempestuous cycles in relationships that ultimately never leads to a change or resolution. Sound familiar? Gracing the cover with a bloody face and a maniacal stare, Abel is as emotionally violent as ever (see lines like “If I OD I want you to OD right beside me” on “Faith”), and after a series of high-profile tumultuous relationships with Bella Hadid and Selena Gomez, he seems eager to come out on top — at least in the songs. The dragging undercurrent of an album as dark as this one, though, is that no one wins. Yet, there is something in that bleakness that is mesmerizing, especially when it seems to mimic the state of the world.
“Never need a b*tch, I’m what a b*tch needs,” he declares on the record’s lead single, “Heartless,” released in late 2019 to introduce this era, following that line up with: “I’ve been running through the pussy / need a dog pound.” So if anyone ever doubted his ability to replace his former mentor, Drake, take notes on this epic homage. And even if this adolescent brag makes Drizzy look straight-up mature, the production courtesy of Metro Boomin and Illangelo is strong enough to land this song on year-end lists, and the line is almost dumb enough to be funny.
Perhaps it was Tesfaye’s recent stint in Adam Sandler’s Uncut Gems that prompted him to lean into even more cinematic fare than usual, debuting a short film to accompany the title track a few weeks before the album came out. In the film, he departs a late-night performance with Jimmy Kimmel — ostensibly the same one where he debuted the new After Hours singles in late December — and then heads out into the ominous night, before he’s overtaken by a spiritual force, and a close encounter in an elevator leads us to believe that the monster is our hero.
But The Weeknd’s deadpan delivery makes even his most misogynistic lines sound like they’re ironic recreations of the sentiments his peers are spouting off earnestly, which doesn’t absolve him, but does make his toxicity more palatable. The album’s second single, “Blinding Lights,” is more upbeat, leaning into the maximalist, contemplative ‘80s pop sound, and is more indicative of the first half of the album, with songs like “Scared To Live” and “Hardest To Love” continuously rehashing an on again/off again relationship. The hints get even more direct on songs like “Snowchild,” where fans identify a giggle sampled as belonging to Bella Hadid, and “Escape From LA” when Tesfaye references Chrome Hearts, a brand Hadid collaborated with late last year.
Like much of The Weeknd’s past work, the central themes of After Hours run parallel to the cycles of a toxic relationship, as songs like “Too Late” express regret and a desire to change, but ultimately fall short of pursuing forgiveness or redemption. And because these are the same themes he’s explored ceaselessly in every chapter, it’s hard to find emotional growth on the record, even if it sounds like one of the best Weeknd albums yet. In this way, it’s not a particularly comforting album during a crisis, but it is realistic and familiar, and repeat appearances from Max Martin and Metro Boomin on production, along with newcomers like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Uncut Gems score composer Daniel Lopatin/Oneohtrix Point Never, mean that even if the emotional tenor is similar to the past, The Weeknd’s sonic palette is ever-expanding. It’s the kind of album that’s best for nighttime listening when thoughts of the past are inevitable, and is a welcome force to focus the listener back on personal crisis instead of a global one.
After Hours is out now via Republic Records. Get it here.