Abel Tesfaye’s, a.k.a. the Weeknd’s, decade’s worth of work has always been confident in its aesthetic purpose. Even throughout his shifts in tone, from brooding R&B deep cuts to ultra pop hits, his imagery and production remained deeply hedonist. His unmistakable voice and touch have crafted countless stories of drug-ridden excursions. This is a performer who has willingly submitted to and perfectly reflected the euphoric peaks and crashing lows of the most infamous nightlives, culminating in the lored character of the Weeknd.
Tesfaye’s fourth studio album After Hours continues to waver through these guttural scenes, but it’s his most majestic, cinematic framing yet. Sharing a title with Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film, and following Tesfaye’s cameo in the Safdie brother’s film Uncut Gems, this project is visually and aurally filtered through 1980s soundtracks and new wave vibes—it even features a couple of productions from the film’s composer Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never.
With such new filmic ties and a prior decade of character building, After Hours naturally weaves together cinematic vignettes of debauched Hollywood and Las Vegas nights. Like a Safdie brother’s film, the album immediately accelerates into the gutters. Just as Uncut Gems begins with Howard Ratner already in the traps of his gambling addiction, After Hours begins with Tesfaye well within the grasps of old vices. On the opener “Alone Again”, he bemuses about one of his recurrent locations, “In Vegas, I feel so at home / I’m falling only for the night.” From the neon-lit imagery to the echoing heartbroken cries, Tesfaye begins to recreate a familiar scene of the Weeknd. Yet, midway into the track, such familiar croons are interrupted by cinematic synth strikes. That opens a new scene of feathery Auto-Tuned melodies and shimmering arpeggios. And, it is such unexpected bursts of productive flare that Tesfaye’s storied persona begins to reach new territories.
These new territories are often cued by such nods to ’80s film music and new wave. With such cinematic and retro influences, Tesfaye’s abilities for both guttural productions and pop flairs merge onto animated synths. On the single “Blinding Lights”, he enters another vignette of “the city’s cold and empty” experience but in a charging new wave-esque hit. It begins with what seems to be a nod to a-ha’s “Take on Me” as the pulsing drum loop leads into an elated synth riff. Then, the music video absolutely completes its ’80s aura with more tributes to Scorsese, with stylized grainy shots and tinted red lights to signify a turn of character.
Of course, After Hours still employs the Weeknd’s more familiar R&B, trap, and pop bangers. But, here is where the problematic tendency of the Weeknd reappears. The issue is certainly not his move into the pop world but his adherence to its popular ideologies about women. Tesfaye’s amphetamine binged imagery and melancholic productions often lead to thoughtless, misogynistic descriptions of women. Such as on the lead single “Heartless”, lines like “I’ve been runnin’ through the pussy, need a dog pound” are truly useless, simply serving as uninspired filler.
Even more, “Escape from LA” encapsulates what can be frustrating about the performative character of the Weeknd. While Tesfaye persistently croons about his dependence on the nightlife, he also expresses a building, hopeful contempt for it. He pleads, “Take me out of LA / This place will be the end of me.” But, as he explains his disgust for LA, he also becomes mired in that very Hollywood sludge of misogyny. Even right after he claims, “I don’t criticize,” he goes on to assess, “She a cold-hearted bitch with no shame / But her throat too fire.” While such language may simply come from a search for ridiculous wordplay, it still feeds into a broader trend throughout Tesfaye’s work. Too often, he presumes, “But this world is such a, such an evil place / Man, these hoes will always find a way.” And, this problematic farming neatly fits into a vast collection of break-up songs that are fueled by a deep distrust of women.
Fortunately, After Hours seems to also deliver some of Tesfaye’s most personal reflections. In cinema, the most stylized, breath-taking shots should always serve a purpose beyond aesthetics, and this rule also applies to the filmic vignettes here. Beneath the orchestral melancholy, red-tinted anger, and swaggered performances, quiet introspections show possibilities of a new perspective. In “Snow Child”, a brief extradiegetic moment cuts the production for a real memory. Tesfaye remembers, “She never need a man, she what a man need / So I keep on falling for her daily,” and suddenly the music halts for a soft clip of a woman laughing. In these ten seconds, Tesfaye offers his most earnest shot of the woman behind these break-up songs, recognizing her separate power and space.
Such realizations from Tesfaye are settled on the title track. The penultimate ballad begins with familiar croons about his heartache. But above all, there is an admittance of his place in this storied downfall. As the heartbeat synths and deep bassline cut off, full attention is brought onto the confession, “I know it’s all my fault / Made you put down your guard / I know I made you fall.” Such honesty contradicts his aforementioned blame on the world, “an evil place”. It refrains panning away from himself, the man behind the Weeknd.
Undoubtedly, Abel Tesfaye is a powerful force as a performer, songwriter, and producer. After Hours is not exactly a new iteration but a cinematic retrospective of the entirety of the Weeknd. Its vignettes offer the purest amalgams of the earliest, bleakest alternative R&B mixtapes, like 2011’s House of Balloons, to the more recent run of massive pop projects, like 2016’s Starboy. Hopefully, such a retrospective lens may also cue a coming balance of his conflicting set of feelings and how he frames them.