A decade on from being the the reclusive, intriguing and faceless star of breakout mixtape House of Balloons, The Weeknd is now a Teen’s Choice winning, Daft Punk and Ariana Grande featuring artist at the front and centre of pop.
Over the course of the last 5 years, following his biggest hits ‘The Hills’ and Max Martin co-written ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ he’s navigated the pop and RnB spaces fluidly to varying effects. In some ways he’s embraced his new found mass appeal with the funky ‘I Feel It Coming’ with Daft Punk, elsewhere on his last new music the My Dear Melancholy EP he’s gone all in to reclaim his moody, sex fuelled atmospheric sound that felt like it was trying far too hard to be ‘unexpected’. This line from ‘Reminder’ sums his contrasting career up perfectly;
‘I just won a new award for a kids show/Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag a blow’.
After Hours still embraces these contrasts, but feels so much more focused than ever before. The Weeknd has fully leaned into pop here and it sounds incredible. The self loathing and introspective lyrics are still here – ‘Take off my disguise/I’m living someone else’s life’ is the opening lyric – but Abel hasn’t sounded so confident musically in years.
From the start the album is lyrically intriguing, he talks of his substance abuse on ‘Alone Again’, which blends into the moody ‘Too Late’ after jumping around musically. ‘Scared To Live’ interpolates Elton John’s Your Song and actually works, emerging as one of the hookiest moments of the album. Songs merge and move together as one, you get the sense that lyrically it’s all one person’s experience. As the name suggests, After Hours isn’t exactly a party record, it’s super reflective of that culture though and deeply personal throughout. That’s nothing new, The Weeknd has never struggled to dig deep on his records, so it’s hardly a surprise its still the case here.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the record though is the sequencing. For an artist so front and centre in genres where streaming is king, releasing a pretty standard 14 track album that starts slow, but builds to a seemingly endless run of absolute banging hits to close is pretty uncommon. Just check how many recent bloated albums are front-loaded with the best hits for those Spotify streams. It shows how much of a solid body of work After Hours is, for me his most consistently great record since 2012’s pre-mainstream Kiss Land.
That string of hits? As soon as US #1 hit ‘Heartless’ begins with it’s grinding production it’s non stop. Faith is a vocal moment that explodes in an unexpected direction. It’s the run of ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Save Your Tears’ that does it for me though. All three co-written/produced with Max Martin and Oscar Holter once more. The former arguably the biggest song of the year so far, is an 80s pop masterclass of impossibly catchy synths, the latter wasting absolutely no time in getting to the point either. Throw in the saxophone and brass moments on the incredible ‘In Your Eyes’ and I’m in awe of the audacity of someone so cool releasing a song so ridiculously poppy and it working. That song is going to be EVERYWHERE soon.
These songs define why After Hours ends up as The Weeknd’s greatest album in years as he’s simply back to making brilliant music again, without the need to prove anything. On Beauty Behind The Madness he could still be seedy and edgy while stepping into the pop space, on Starboy he was conflicted about what direction to go in, while on the follow up EP he reverted to old habits.
Words by Sam Atkins