By Troy Hasselman, April 2 2020 —
Nearly a decade since he first came onto the scene as the depraved hedonist of the House of Balloons Mixtape, The Weeknd has finally come full circle. The Toronto R&B star has gone from an underground phenomenon, to a chart-topping superstar and back into something in-between on After Hours.
Looking back on House of Balloons and its follow ups released in the same year — Thursday and Echoes of Silence — it’s hard to hear them with the same ears one would have heard at the time. These and their ethereal, minimal R&B production predicted the next decade of music more strongly than perhaps any other releases with shades of the Weeknd’s brooding sound heard everywhere from Drake to Beyoncé to FKA Twigs to Lorde. This originality — despite some incredible singles on both albums — made his twin smash releases of Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy disappointing by comparison. The Weeknd’s aesthetic had been adulated to the point that his own style was beginning to sound stale while he flirted with bigger-sounding, more maximal production that sounded out-of-place when tethered to his falsetto.
Enter After Hours and a stylistic shift that, while not necessarily original, welcomes a breath of fresh air into his sound. Lead single “Blinding Lights” rides an expensive-sounding Max Martin beat through a charismatic vocal from the Weeknd that sounds like a track from the Drive soundtrack, if Drive had the budget of a Marvel movie. This speaks to the cinematic quality of the album as a whole, with Martin Scorcese films and the Safie Brothers Uncut Gems — which includes a cameo from The Weeknd — play an essential role in the album’s iconography and storytelling, to the point that Uncut Gems’ soundtrack composer Oneohtrix Point Never co-produces two of the albums songs. This cinematic, 80s influenced landscapes were popular at the time the Weeknd began releasing music but makes perfect sense for him in this moment by straying from the dominant musical aesthetic of right now in the same way he did at the start of his career.
Lyrically, the album deals with themes of fame, it’s alienating effects, and heartbreak all while keeping in with the Weeknd’s villain persona. While the album is inspired by Scorcese, he more takes on the role of a Joe Pesce character throughout as exemplified by the Metro Boomin produced lead single “Heartless.” The Weeknd went through a publicized split with model Bella Hadid before the album’s release and definitely takes inspiration from this heartbreak on moments such as the jarring closing track “Until I Bleed Out.”
However, with this project the focus ultimately doesn’t lie on the lyrics — it’s in the immaculate production and The Weeknd’s virtuosic vocal performances. From a technical standpoint, this is the best The Weeknd has ever sounded. This album does not have the startling originality of his first three mixtapes but instead lays ground for a fresh take on his music by looking to the past.