At the end of this year, the Weeknd—a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, emo-crooner and poster child for self-medication’s artistic potential—will have been releasing music for a full decade. After three mixtapes, three studio albums, and one confusingly-labeled-mini-album, it’s worth asking what’s lasted all this time. Constant reinvention is part and parcel of music industry stardom, and the Weeknd has managed to make his reinventions feel slick, almost imperceptible in gradation. The Weeknd has managed to survive, and even thrive, with his particular darkness relatively intact.
Any given song in his discography balances an insatiable lust with dark alt-R&B to elegize drug addiction, heartbreak, and loneliness: self-destruction as founding mythology. His indomitable trilogy of mixtapes turned the banality of endless parties into an odyssey, while his recent efforts have mixed pop and electronica for a concentrated shot of shadowy neo-soul pining. But the point remains that he’s still telling the same story: there is no Weeknd without his haunting falsetto, without the darkened R&B heartbeat, without that impulse towards self-destruction. What matters most, then, are the new ways the story gets told.
Enter After Hours, the Weeknd’s newest album and latest phase. If Beauty Behind the Madness‘s reinvention was denoted by “Can’t Feel My Face” and a broad pop heel-turn, and My Dear Melancholy‘s by a whipping trench coat and dour breakup electropop, the Weeknd’s fourth studio album locates itself somewhere between a gaudy blood-red suit and a cinematic nightmare version of Vegas.
There’s the customary theatricality that introduces a Weeknd album, as opener “Alone Again” gearshifts into a different song halfway through, but what hits you first here is the unexpected familiarity. After Hours carries echoes of Kiss Land in its sound, melding heightened ’80s emotion with the stormy synths and woozy drums already so ingrained in the Weeknd’s universe. The echo of a previous era is bracing but welcome: compared to the claustrophobic Kiss Land, there’s a good deal more breathing room here to let the Weeknd’s fantasy unfold naturally. “We’re in hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights / I just wanna believe there’s so much more,” he croons on “Too Late”, a slight distortion lurking at the edge of the vocal.
Far from the foreboding dread or braggadocio of the last few albums, there are flashes of real yearning and reflection behind the drugs and collapsing relationships. Weeknd mainstay Illangelo, Metro Boomin, and pop titan Max Martin handle the brunt of the album’s production with deft touches, blending trap drums and new wave drama to keep the sound flowing flawlessly over the hour-long runtime. But once the novelty of this new phase wears off a bit, you’re left with a strangely anticlimactic feeling, as if you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It isn’t that the music is unlistenable, not anything close to that. Tesfaye has come too far for a Weeknd album to sound bad at this point. But for listeners who’ve been tuned into the Weeknd’s particular brand of dark electro-R&B since the beginning, there’s a sense of urgency that’s missing here. “Escape from LA”, a nearly-six minute track split into two parts, reaches for the kind of fearful symmetry of a “House of Balloons” or “The Party & The After Party”, but ends up feeling nothing but indulgent in its wandering. “Snowchild”, a recollection of the Weeknd’s come up, is a straight-up retread of Starboy‘s “Sidewalks”, It also doesn’t have the Weeknd’s impressive vocal gymnastics or a Kendrick Lamar verse to lend it the same staying power. Although the Phillip K. Dick line is so absolutely batshit that it almost makes up for the relative boredom of the track. There’s the unsubtle a certain proportion of the album feels like it’s just biding its time, blending into the tracks before and after it. Filler has been something mercifully rare in the Weeknd’s discography, but After Hours is heavy with it, even with its glossy soundscape.
There are a few moments that point to the album that After Hours wanted to be, a reflective and challenging Weeknd project than what we’ve heard before. “Repeat After Me (Interlude)” is a refreshing psychedelic respite from the rest of After Hours’ sumptuous desolation, courtesy of Kevin Parker’s dreamy production: the chugging percussion provides a fitting foil for the Weeknd’s lilt.”Blinding Lights” injects a necessary jolt into the tracklist’s second half, climbing to the anxious heights that lead single “Heartless” barely manages to scrape. “In Your Eyes” is the album’s most genuine pleasure, playing with gentle desire over an earnest synthpop groove.
But it’s “Scared to Live” that lives up to After Hours‘ intention the most. It’s a Weeknd vocal at its melodramatic best, as he builds from muted verse to bombastic chorus to unexpected Elton John interpolation (that “I hope you know that” hits just so cleanly). Still, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the Weeknd made a pretty sincere torch song. The track works as both an admission of guilt and a heartfelt sendoff; it’s the Weeknd trying his hand at sincerity, contemplating his heartbreak in its own room. After Hours is most interesting when the Weeknd’s playing with this dynamic: his usual intoxicating despair answered by a soft and present clarity.
But these intimate moments, with all their fledgling uncertainty, get bogged down by the Weeknd himself, who still needs us to understand just how fucking broken he is. Again, “Heartless” was the first song released from After Hours, yet another juiced-up ode to drug-addled misogyny. At its best, it’s a new sound, but at its worst, “Heartless” comes off like a cartoon, a parody of the Weeknd stripped of the self-awareness that makes his appetites tolerable. The song falls into the same trap as the cloying “Hardest to Love”, the tedious “Faith”, the light but not unpleasant touch of “Save Your Tears”. Without a solid bridge between business as usual and the album’s delicate moments, the whole project lands disjointed. Those flashes of progress, the possibility of the Weeknd changing into something new, get lost in the ersatz production.
It’s gotten harder and harder with time to sympathize with the tragedy that the Weeknd embodies. On some level, that might have been what made House of Balloons and its sequels easier to stomach. The Weeknd was more compelling when he seemed afraid of his brokenness too, and the music reflected it. “After Hours” and “Until I Bleed Out” recapture some of that old fear, but any heft these moments might have had flounder without the proper buildup. The listener’s just meant to be satisfied that yes, that is the Weeknd singing, so this must be another Weeknd album. But the problem with After Hours is that: its Weeknd-ness is still the centerpiece, the thesis, what the Weeknd wants us to see the most. It’s been a decade, and the story still hasn’t changed.