After Hours is the Weeknd's most consistent work to date
Although his music is most commonly associated with R&B, it's far more useful to think of Abel Tesfaye as a rapper. Over the course of the last decade, the 30-year-old singer behind the Weeknd has established a series of recognizable vocal identifiers and signature tics that can be discussed similar to how we analyze rap artists' individual flows: line-by-line pole vaults between his low and high register, flurries of quasi-conversational lyrics structured around just one or two notes, wordless vocal outbursts punctuating pockets of empty space. This style has become so easily identifiable that it's informed the sound of an entire generation of pop artists — and it's also become an albatross of sorts for Tesfaye, regularly triggering accusations of a lack of artistic growth across his increasingly substantial discography.
The reality is, Tesfaye's music has undergone drastic changes since he emerged as an enigmatic underground pop figure circa 2011's massively influential House of Balloons — a musical evolution from murky, purple melodies and beats that slow to a crawl to big-time pop moves evoking the blockbuster sounds of past eras. After Hours, his fourth album as the Weeknd, is perhaps his biggest sonic leap yet as well as his strongest and most consistent work to date. There's a cohesion to these 14 tracks that was absent from Tesfaye's last several releases, a real sense that he's closer than ever to striking the perfect balance between the darkly shaded aesthetic he broke out with and the naked pop ambitions of his more recent material.
Despite feeling like a new step forward for Tesfaye, After Hours derives its greatest successes from studying the past — specifically, new wave's weightless pulse as well as the neon glow of 1980s synth-pop. These sounds were present on the last Weeknd full-length, 2016's luxurious-sounding Starboy, itself a change-up from the Michael Jackson-isms of its predecessor Beauty Behind the Madness from the previous year. But this time around, Tesfaye has bathed his sound in these night-lit textures rather than merely flirting with them; the pedal-to-the-floor throb of "Blinding Lights" sounds lovingly ripped from the iconic soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn's retro-actioner Drive, while "In Your Eyes" boasts the boldest saxophone solo since M83's "Midnight City."
As the Weeknd's most concise and aesthetically focused album yet, it's tempting to credit After Hours' strengths to the introduction of new creative blood in the studio. In-demand producer Ricky Reed (Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" and "Good as Hell") throws in on the dubstep-imbued "Too Late," while Tame Impala's Kevin Parker nabs writing and production credits on the vibey "Repeat After Me (Interlude)" alongside Daniel Lopatin, who typically works in the experimental electronic music world as Oneohtrix Point Never. (Along with contributing to the Elton John-sampling "Scared to Live" and closer "Until I Bleed Out," this isn't the first time in recent memory that Lopatin's been in creative congress with Tesfaye; the former scored last year's Adam Sandler-starring thriller Uncut Gems, which the latter made his acting debut in.)
But the growth that marks After Hours can be equally attributed to Tesfaye's regular collaborators — a loose grouping that includes day-one producers/songwriters DaHeala and Illangelo, as well as frequent Drake collaborator Frank Dukes and behind-the-scenes pop genius Max Martin. Alongside tracks like "Heartless" and "Alone Again" that bear the Weeknd's signature blacked-out sound, Martin delivers After Hours' most shocking deviation from that aesthetic with the sky-climbing "Hardest to Love," a featherweight slice of drum 'n' bass that resembles a lost track from Björk's classic Homogenic. Elsewhere, DaHeala and Illangelo team up on the floaty and drum machine-dotted "Snowchild," a surprisingly fragile-sounding cut ripped from Frank Ocean's plush playbook that features Tesfaye ruminating in Drake-esque trains of thought about where he's been and the moment he's currently arrived at.
"I just signed a new deal with Mercedes," he keens over that track's ping-ponging atmospherics — a shallow note of reflective braggadocio that unintentionally highlights the chief weakness of After Hours as well as Tesfaye's songwriting as a whole. Since the series of releases that comprised 2012's Trilogy, he's gained a reputation for lascivious lines and bitter, scornful kiss-offs that flirt with (if not wholly embody) the type of misogynistic chauvinism gleaned from an episode of Entourage. Beyond that questionable crutch, it's still not clear that Tesfaye has much to actually say despite a decade of finding his own voice at his disposal; it's tough not to roll one's eyes at his exaggerated delivery of a line like "We had sex in the studio," as he does over the wastrel epic "Escape From LA," both due to its faux-provocative intent and the trodding of well-worn ground. After Hours is, above all else, a testament to Tesfaye's surprisingly fascinating musical journey thus far — but it's clear that he's still not done growing up just yet. B