On Friday, March 20, Abel Tesfaye, known as The Weeknd, released “After Hours,” one of 2020’s most highly anticipated albums thus far. This album comes four years after his last studio album, “Starboy,” and continues down the darker path Tesfaye returned to in his 2018 extended play “My Dear Melancholy.” With the nation and many parts of the world self-isolating amid COVID-19 concerns, “After Hours” dropped at the perfect time for depressing music.
The bar for this project was set pretty high through its three great singles “Heartless,” “Blinding Lights” and “After Hours,” as well as “Scared To Live” which was heard in an SNL performance. Armed with a new hairstyle and red blazer in his SNL appearance and the art for the singles, Tesfaye committed to a new persona for his promotional run. The album art takes that a step further, depicting a grin from Tesfaye as blood from his broken nose stains his teeth. One thing’s clear: Life’s kicking his ass, but he’s used to the pain. He may even enjoy it.
Bella Hadid broke The Weeknd’s heart, and he won’t stop telling us about it. He jumps around the stages of grief: taking accountability for his actions, letting out a bit of anger as he takes shots at her plastic surgery and apparent lack of gratitude on “Escape From LA,” denying reality as he desperately tries brainwashing her into loving him on “Repeat After Me,” bargaining as he offers one last apology with the chorus of “After Hours,” and accepting she’s gone on “Until I Bleed Out” at the end of the album.
The first three tracks of the album are pretty meh. “Alone Again” and “Too Late” are OK, and “Hardest To Love” has a nice transition into “Scared To Live,” but none of them are too noteworthy. After “Scared To Live,” the middle of the album is better, with bright spots every now and then — “She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship/Futuristic sex, give her Philip K. d--k” from “Snowchild” may be the best bad line I’ve heard this year, and the transition between “Faith” and “Blinding Lights” is amazing. The saxophone solo in “In Your Eyes” stands out as well, and things heat up at the interlude placed at the very end of the album. “Repeat After Me (Interlude),” “After Hours” and “Until I Bleed Out” form the strongest stretch of the album, with the latter quickly emerging as the best record on the album.
On first listen, “After Hours” underwhelms. Sure it has big “Uncut Gems” energy, but it’s lacking in the bravado we’ve come to expect from The Weeknd; the swagger we’ve heard in “Starboy,” “The Hills,” or “Wicked Games” is scarce on “After Hours.” He’s much more measured than he’s been in the past, both with his pen and his voice — until we get the final track. He’s kept his emotions in check as he’s tried to get her back, but as reality sets in, he finally explodes with the chorus “I wanna cut you outta my dreams/‘Til I'm bleeding out/‘Til I’m bleeding.” Chaotic production reinforces this feeling. As quickly as that emotion comes out, it’s gone. The song ends abruptly, a perfect transition back to the beginning of the album, which all of a sudden doesn’t sound so unimpressive. Each record grows on you with every listen.
Instead of a start-to-end journey, “After Hours” is a merry-go-round of breakup-related emotion with trademark drug references sprinkled in for good measure. It’s music to make bad decisions to. The tracklist is pretty much ordered by producer with Illangelo, Max Martin and Metro Boomin handling most of the tracks. With so few cooks in the kitchen and The Weeknd adding to the production on all but one song, the result is a cohesive, hour-long vibe tailor-made for the streaming era and self-quarantine induced boredom binging. Though it could be shaved down to 10 or 11 tracks and Gesaffelstein’s production was definitely missed, the album is well sequenced and has great replay value with enough standout songs like “Faith,” “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” to keep us coming back. Off the back of that replay value and being his most consistent project to date, “After Hours” is solidly in the conversation as The Weeknd’s best album and album of the year.