Bursting onto the scene in 2010 with a unique dark-wave RnB aesthetic, Abel Tesfaye’s hedonistic, drug-induced ramblings across the Trilogy mixtapes showcased one of the greatest debut efforts of the last decade, and cemented The Weeknd as the most exciting newcomer in RnB.
But Tesfaye is no stranger to reinvention. Ten years of exponential growth and a string of hit singles later, his work has slowly shifted away from this decadent fever dream: first to the more clean-cut (but starkly hook devoid) Kiss Land, then later to the chart-topping Beauty Behind the Madness and infectious, pop-centred choruses of Starboy. Despite his undeniable success as a result of this venture further into pop territory, it’s clear from the subject matter of After Hours that an inner darkness still remains: materialistic excess, loneliness, an emotional void filled by sex and drugs. These return en masse, portraying shadows of the disturbed character that aroused intrigue and sparked success for Tesfaye in the first place.
It’s always interesting when an artist chooses to accompany an album release with a cinematic short – what sentiment were they unable to convey through music alone? More recently Thom Yorke treated Netflix viewers to the meticulously choreographed Anima, a perfect companion to the anxious, hypnotic melodies of the accompanying record. Similarly, the After Hours short film gives a window into the mind of its frenetic creator. We open uncomfortably close on the singer’s grinning face, his latest guise a fashionable 80s disco-star with a bloodied face: part serial killer, part Boogie Nights extra. As he leaves the stage and wanders down a gloomy corridor, grin turns to haunting grimace. Now the performance is over, his presence unaccounted for, and the anxiety is plain on his face – where does he belong? An increasingly distraught Tesfaye meanders through an abandoned subway against distant echoes of his new music, before a beat drop drags him literally into his musical hellscape, pulled kicking and screaming along dirty platforms. The film ends with a disturbing fade to red – elevator doors trap two bystanders with a sunglassed, portentous Tesfaye; the ensuing thudding and screaming reveal his murderous intentions.
This character personifies perfectly the music found on After Hours – a stark contrast of thumping disco basslines and tight synths (the bright red suit jacket, sunglasses), with the dark subject matter of death, drugs and loneliness (the bloodied nose; haunting glares). ‘And I’m back to my ways ‘cause I’m heartless’; ‘Tryna’ find the one that can fix me’ sings Tesfaye on lead single ‘Heartless’, and it’s clear once again from the drug-filled bender of a music video that underneath a superficial gloss of disco, the 2010 Weeknd never really left; the same thoughts that plagued his adolescent mind continue to taunt him ten years later.
His killer character serves another purpose, however, mocking the audience that applauds his every move. To a Tesfaye numbed by success, the audience’s reverence to his opining on drugs, sex and disrespecting women (‘I don’t need a bitch I’m what a bitch needs’) seems darkly humorous; would the audience hold the same affinity for a bloodied killer, so long as his sweet crooning remains in tune? It’s a macabre test of sorts, a show of dominance in the era of greater accountability for our artists; he could still most likely get away with whatever deviances he wants.
Of course I wouldn’t be wasting my time carving pretentious insights if the music wasn’t any good. Luckily this is The Weeknd’s strongest effort since Trilogy, and excellent production from Illangelo, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), bring Tesfaye’s twisted world to life with tight kicks, shimmering synth lines, and of course Tesfaye’s seductive vocals. The dense mix struggles to cope at points – the opener ‘Alone Again’ sees Tesfaye’s processed vocals buried uncomfortably deep, and the trap beat that takes over in the second half does little to help. A surprise drum and bass break on ‘Hardest to Love’ provides another awkward moment (Wadham bop is that you?), but despite this the record stays thematically cohesive overall, with tracks bleeding seamlessly from one to the next. Highlights include the soaring vocals of ‘Scared to Live’ and infectious driving rhythms of ‘Blinding Lights’ (the latter premiering oddly effectively in a Mercedes Benz commercial).
‘But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me,’ sings Tesfaye on ‘Faith’, a stark reminder the troubled singer’s redemption arc is far from complete. But whatever characters he plays along this journey, whatever deviances he engages in to reconcile the demons that remain, with music as good as this it’s clear we’re in for a treat along the way.