Friends, Fear, and Demons in the “After Hours” of the Night
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Abel Tesfaye (also known as The Weeknd) is one of, if not the most, notable voices when it comes to modern R&B. He took the music industry by storm in 2011 with his unique style of dark R&B and has spent the last nine years of his career building an enigmatic persona. Despite the nihilistic character Tesfaye has created for himself, he seems to be more vulnerable than ever in his more recent albums.
“After Hours” is a complete reinvention of The Weeknd. After deactivating his social media accounts last summer, Tesfaye resurfaced in November with a new hairstyle and vintage look. His new image is reflected in the album’s promotional materials and the sound.
The album’s aesthetic is very psychedelic and ‘80s-inspired. Tesfaye draws inspiration from several films, including “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), “Joker” (2019), “Casino” (1995), and “Uncut Gems” (2019). The project is centered around a night gone wrong in Las Vegas, or “Sin City,” as The Weeknd refers to it in several songs. Music videos for songs like “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” were shot at the Plaza Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The city’s infamy for drugs, sex, and luxury is a perfect fit for The Weeknd’s dark, sybaritic brand.
Similarly, the tracks of “After Hours” mark a new creative phase for The Weeknd. In this album, Tesfaye experiments with electronic synths and dance-pop elements, mixing the genres of the ‘80s and alternative R&B. Many tracks on “After Hours” contain deep, slow beats, similar to numerous, previous The Weeknd hits. Other songs like “In Your Eyes” or “Hardest to Love” pay homage to ‘80s pop, with heavy synths and faster beats that bring the songs firmly into New Wave territory. Tesfaye manages to tell harrowing stories even when accompanied by a groovy, disco-inspired beat. Tesfaye sings about a suffering relationship in “In Your Eyes,” but the painful lyrics, “You always try to hide the pain” and “My heart can't take a loss,” are masked by the up-tempo beat.
In other songs, the music matches the lyrics and vocals. For example, in “Heartless,” Tesfaye opens with the striking lyrics “Never need a [EXPLETIVE], I’m what a [EXPLETIVE] need,” accompanied with a strong melody, bass line, and drum groove. The album’s creative direction is hard to pinpoint, but all of the songs are tied together by The Weeknd’s bold lyrics and signature falsetto delivery. The new elements in “After Hours” take the music from a place of dark R&B to retro-pop.
Despite being a great album overall, “After Hours” definitely has standout tracks. “Heartless,” the first single to drop before “After Hours” was released, provides a classic Weeknd sound. The track centers around the fast lifestyle of fame and money, evoking a numb, heartless feeling, a typical topic for The Weeknd. It’s riddled with synths and contains a strong chorus coupled with a thumping beat that supports Tesfaye’s distinct vocals. Though it may not be a very experimental sound for the seasoned artist, the song is undeniably a hit.
“Blinding Lights,” the next single Tesfaye released, goes in a completely different direction. The pumping synths and lively beat make this song seem like an 80s fever dream, straying from Tesfaye’s brand of hedonistic R&B and into a commercial dance-pop song. In addition to its unique sound, the song features one of Tesfaye’s most impressive vocal performances to date. The subject matter of the song is consistent with The Weeknd’s other songs, but the unique production makes the song shine brighter than Vegas at 2 a.m.
Another standout is “Scared To Live,” a heartfelt ballad with heavy instrumentals and a slower, subdued beat that lets Tesfaye’s impressive vocals shine front and center. “Faith” is also a great track, contrasting with the previous two songs while maintaining the ‘80s sound with heavy background synths. The track progresses from a slower, somber beat to an upbeat rhythm to a cinematic outro. The variety of songs in this album showcases Tesfaye’s versatility, both lyrically and stylistically.
In “After Hours,” we see The Weeknd in a very vulnerable place. Written in the aftermath of a very public break-up, the album explores Tesfaye’s broken mental state along with the usual medley of sex, drugs, and his other sordid affairs. Tesfaye himself said, “You can find love, fear, friends, enemies, violence, dancing, sex, demons, angels, loneliness, and togetherness all in the ‘After Hours’ of the night.” Many of the tracks on his album showcase Tesfaye’s melancholy voice paired with a slow beat, while others feature strong, smooth vocals and bright melodies. This hodgepodge of sounds resembles Tesfaye’s unstable mindset as he tells a gloomy story of a failed relationship.
“After Hours” is easily one of The Weeknd’s most impressive performances. In addition to the unique sound, the emotional vulnerability the songs exhibit makes the album stand out in The Weeknd’s discography. Though the album does not align with his past material, the evolution of Tesfaye’s style has produced one of his most successful commercial albums yet.