Back in 2015, inspired by a fever-induced epiphany, I wrote: “The Weeknd Is a Vampire, Seriously.” I wrote the article thinking about Dracula, The Lost Boys, Twilight, and how, in pop culture, vampires are charismatic sweet-talkers who rule the night. That is The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye: A charming R&B star who aesthetically understands the allure of mystery and the language of sensuality.
Although The Weeknd never confirmed my suspicions, I can’t help but wonder, by naming his fourth studio album After Hours, and by using a photo of himself with visibly blood-stained teeth, is he leaning further into the vampire aesthetic? Or is he delivering the album version of Fight Club? It will come as no surprise if the Toronto-born superstar has channeled his inner Tyler Durden for this latest release. Whatever The Weeknd’s inspiration may be, there’s a cinematic spirit in the visual aesthetic that makes me believe After Hours will be a movie for eardrums.
As one of the first pop stars to release an album during the deadly COVID-19 outbreak, After Hours may be one of the most talked-about releases of 2020. In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
We are indoors, and we are listening. Tell us something good, Abel.
1. “Alone Again”
This build-up feels like night time. He is here. “Take off my disguise, I’m living someone else’s life.” I like this. A man of many lives. The music is woven around his vocals. I love the quietness and how it draws you in as the music builds higher and higher like a growing skyscraper. “Alone Again” sets a hypnotic mood. The production has character; these synths are as alive as the vocals. The drums just dropped. It’s a party! Daft Punk after dark, if Daft Punk were nightwalkers, not robots. I like this a great deal. The Weeknd is the star here, but vocally, he’s complemented by the production. “Alone Again” was designed for The Weeknd. Not sure where this is taking me, but I’m enjoying the ride already.
2. “Too Late”
When he said, “I let you down,” I felt that. I’m already feeling the itch to rewind this one. I love how the production is layered with personality. I believe this is Illangelo and a gang of co-producers. [Editor’s Note: Correct, Illangelo co-produced the record with DaHeala, Nate Mercereau, and Ricky Reed.] We have to pay attention to all these moving parts. From the sincere vocals to the warm synths, and don’t get me started on the percussive rhythm. This record is dancing in a dark night club in a puddle of tears and tequila. “Too Late” causes your ears to perk up. The Weeknd submerges you. The drums are hitting like a button masher pulling off a combo in Street Fighter. This back half is giving me Kavinsky. The Weeknd is making synth cinema.
3. “Hardest to Love”
The Weeknd is crafting an entire world for his voice to live in. So far, musically, the project feels designed just for him. There’s a concentrated effort in the musicality, not just the songwriting. Abel is keeping things interesting. Although every album he’s made is centered around love, The Weeknd never makes the subject matter mundane. He sounds good here. “I been the hardest to love,” he confesses on the hook. He’s earnest. Accountable. Who laid down these drums? [Editor’s Note: Max Martin.] This one moves fast, the fastest record thus far. Seeing mass appeal with this one. A warping beat switch. This is an album in motion.
4. “Scared To Live”
Organ? His voice sounds the most prominent here. It’s crystal clear. Above the beat instead of underneath. The vocals are soaring higher than a baby bird who caught the perfect wind beneath its wings. So much soul. The Weeknd sounds like he’s a mature man now. Far more mature than he was on My Dear Melancholy. “I should’ve made you my only.” Is this a post-breakup album? My favorite so far.
I like the titles. Oh yes! The production just gets better and better. These drums got that BOUNCE. He’s treating the recording booth like a confessional. Candid Abel. “I was blowing smoke had me dizzy like Gillespie.” The cover girl line. Did Abel write this? [Editor’s Note: Yes, he co-wrote the song with Belly.] “Snowchild” sounds like the sequel to “Tell Your Friends.” I must say, hearing The Weeknd like this reminds me of Brent Faiyaz. The influence has been obvious, but it’s nice that we got both Weeknd and Faiyaz albums this year. A Coachella line. Ain’t no Coachella, bruh. “Snowchild” is a keeper. He’s catching that R&B rap stride. I’m pretty sure he does one of these every album. “Going on tour is my vacation.” Well, ain’t no tour either.
6. “Escape From LA”
I love this title, too. A slow build-up. There’s some great production on this album. Maybe his best-produced project to date. A premature observation, but sonically, After Hours is pleasant. “This place is never what it seems.” A lot of passion in this one. A mixture of singing and rapping here. He’s still in the confessional pouring it out. For a rich man who can give anyone the world, The Weeknd isn’t able to find any happiness. Production is transformative. Sonically, the song is more layered than school uniforms during a Toronto winter. This one entrances me. It’s just entrancing. If I weren’t sitting at my computer typing, I would let this one play on repeat. Getaway music. Keeper.
I didn’t listen to any of the singles when they were released. “Heartless” was the first single, I believe. [Editor’s Note: Correct.] Sheesh, this record so lively! Metro Boomin, man. The sequencing is perfect. The album just came out of the grave and did the Woah. Not only did Weeknd escape LA, but he also left the city on a cocaine high. I feel like I could run through a wall right now. This is what great sequencing does; it elevates a song into a moment. That jump in energy is what a great single should do. “Heartless” is a back-on-my-bullshit anthem. Metro Boomin is a treasure. The true definition of a super producer. Seven for seven.
Let’s see if The Weeknd can keep the momentum. I like the shift in pacing. The album’s sequencing is impeccable. Did I mention that before? Oh yes, a well-timed cocaine reference. If the first few songs were sober confessions, these last two have been the relapse. He’s catching the rhythm. Sounds like vintage Abel. He’s back in the toxic lover bag that gave us some of his greatest hits. I love the synth-driven production. “I’m losing my religion every day.” The last thing we need to hear during a period of pandemic isolation is someone who is losing their faith. After Hours is scored beautifully. I swear he’s a vampire. Last week, while in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I met a dope emerging artist named The Vampire Youth. There’s a vampire takeover coming for mainstream music. Keeper.
9. “Blinding Lights”
I know The Weeknd has been playing Kavinsky. These synths are taking me back to the first time I heard Nightcall. I need The Weeknd to write the theme song for Knight Rider if they ever reboot it (again). “Blinding Lights” sounds like riding down the interstate underneath a huge, midnight moon. I like this a lot. What inspired him to lean so heavily into synth-pop? He’s marked this album with a sound that separates him from the contemporaries in mainstream pop and R&B. Keeper.
10. “In Your Eyes”
Sequence wise, by far the best-paced Weeknd album. Every song transitioned with such seamless precision. Sonically, he’s moving to a beat that compliments every record prior. We are supposed to hear these songs in a specific ordering, but I’m almost certain the album would still be effective if played on shuffle. The narrative may change, but the world he’s building is defined. Is that a sax? Who is blowing the sax? [Editor’s Note: That would be Wojtek Goral.] This album should have come bundled with a dancefloor and a few rolled-up dollar bills. Okay, maybe not the dollars, but you’ll need somewhere to catch a groove like it’s the ’80s.
11. “Save Your Tears”
Reminds me a bit of SZA’s “Prom.” I wonder if her next album will fall more into a synth-pop aesthetic? Back to Abel. Pacing wise, the singing doesn’t drag largely due to the production. After Hours is an album meant to keep your body dancing. “Save your tears for another day.” Man, he’s a complete savage on the back half of the album. What happened to the loving, compassionate Weeknd? He took the cape is off. He’s not saving her, or anyone for that matter. Not my favorite record, but still a good one.
12. “Repeat After Me (Interlude)”
An interlude this deep into the album is funny. A three-minute interlude isn’t an interlude, is it? [Editor’s Note: It can be, yes.] Vocally, The Weeknd is pitched down. He doesn’t sound audible. I’m not sure how I can repeat after him. Okay, there he goes. “You don’t love him.” Oh man, this is a Future song. I want Weeknd to do a cover of “Throw Away.” The Weeknd has singlehandedly killed quarantine and chill. Let the Future memes fly. He’s sliding! This one is a winner all around, but the production is something else. It’s the most blissful background for a messy serenade. Run it back, Turbo.
13. “After Hours”
Another single I didn’t hear when it was released. “Fighting for my life, I couldn’t breath again.” I like this build up a lot. I have to check the production credits, but whoever he brought in to build this album gave him a cathedral of beautiful synths and stunning percussion. [Editor’s Note: Credit to veteran Mario Winans here.] I love that Weeknd never names the person who is at the heart of his conflict. When he first arrived, we didn’t know who he was. Now that he’s shown us his face, he hides his muses. It’s easy to hear The Weeknd and visualize someone, anyone. Oh yeah! This is it. I need him to perform this in a dirty warehouse filled with pumping fists, molly residue, and glow sticks. “Sorry I broke your heart.” Oh, now he’s sorry? “I know it was all my fault.” You can tell the drugs wore off, and he’s having post-cocaine clarity. I love the many moods of this album. Feels like I went through a whole tumultuous relationship.
14. “Until I Bleed Out”
Let’s see how Abel closes this one out. He’ll never be the world’s best singer, but he knows how to sell it. “I don’t want to touch the sky no more.” Oh yeah, sing it! I told y’all he had a post-high clarity. After Hours is as much about his relationship with substance abuse as it is with a relationship. I can’t wait to play this album again. “I don’t need it anymore.”
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on The Weeknd’s After Hours
After Hours, on first listen, feels like a natural progression from his third studio album, Starboy. The Weeknd delivered more shiny, danceable pop music with his signature moody edge.
Although The Weeknd has made good and great albums before, what makes After Hours stand out, especially compared to its predecessor, is how the album is a convergence of ideas extending throughout the songwriting, musicality, and sequencing. This album is a calculated and cohesive world of synth-pop rhythms and lovelorn confessions.
The Weeknd stripped away the fat that bogged down Starboy, and the prominent features which are usually present on The Weeknd albums have been removed, leaving at the album’s center, an artist trying to be no one but himself. At its core, After Hours is a Weeknd album, and whether you love him or not, Abel Tesfaye and his collaborators continue to reintroduce him as a magnetic man of love and loss, sex, and seduction, chasing the next high and heartbreak like no other.