Sex, drugs and R&B: The Weeknd recreates earlier sounds with ’80s-inspired ‘After Hours’

“After Hours” album cover.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“After Hours” album cover.

By Elise Lavallee, Contributing Editor

What begins as a confession of love that comes “too late” to save the relationship quickly becomes a story of using drugs and sex to cope with self-hatred and heartbreak in “After Hours,” the fourth studio album by The Weeknd, released March 20.

The album is meant to be a companion to the artist’s first official EP, “My Dear Melancholy,” released March 30, 2018. The Weeknd, also known as Abel Tesfaye, extends the EP’s narrative of a dying love into one of trying to feel alive by partying endlessly with his latest full-length album.

“After Hours” has more hits than misses, with something for everyone and every mood, sliding effortlessly between upbeat and slower emotional tracks. The album appeals to Weeknd fans new and old, making up for the criticism received by the artist for abandoning his original sound in “Starboy.”

“After Hours” succeeds in blending the pop sounds of “Starboy” (2016) with the darker R&B sounds of his studio mixtape “Trilogy” (2012). Tesfaye’s recent appearance in the Safdie brother’s film “Uncut Gems,” — playing himself as an up-and-coming performer in 2012, performing music from his earlier career — almost seems to foreshadow the return to his original sound.

Tesfaye started promoting the album in November 2019, releasing his first two singles, “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights,” two days apart. “Blinding Lights,” the second single and most popular song from the album, currently holds the fourth spot in the Billboard Top 100. While the first two singles are sonically and thematically similar to the title track of his last album, “Starboy,” the third single and title track of “After Hours” sounds much more like his earlier discography.

The fast-paced presence of heavy bass in “Starboy” is balanced by the slower, moodier beats more characteristic of typical R&B music and his earlier work. The love and arrogance conveyed in his 2016 lyrics is swapped for the yearning and self-loathing typical of his earlier work.

Not only has Tesfaye returned to his roots musically and lyrically, but in collaborations as well. Illangelo, a Canadian sound engineer who was heavily involved with “Trilogy,” is credited with writing and/or producing seven songs of the 14-track album. As a fan of The Weeknd’s earlier works, I find myself drawn to the tracks Illangelo was involved with, including “Snowchild,” “Escape to LA,” “Faith” and “After Hours.”

Heavy synth and repetition give the tracks of “After Hours” an ’80s feeling, helping to set the scene to the larger narrative of the album. The ’80s sounds are mirrored in the visual imagery of the album’s related music videos. The music video for “In Your Eyes,” the 10th track of the album, received more than 2.2 million views on YouTube since it’s Monday morning release.

“In Your Eyes” — joining “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” as the only tracks that presently have an accompanying videos — takes on the aesthetics of an ’80s horror movie, picturing Tesfaye as a knife-wielding murderer, chasing down a woman who witnessed his most recent slay. Imagery of bloodied faces broken up by flashing party lights intensify the narrative of the album, drawing the viewer in until the final scene.

Considering The Weeknd’s storytelling ability and eye for aesthetics, “After Hours” would have been the perfect candidate for a visual album. With three videos released already, it will be interesting to see if Tesfaye continues to bring his lyrics to life as the year carries on.

To some listeners, “Scared to Live” might hit some familiar notes, with samples from “Your Song” by Elton John, who is also credited as a writer on the track. While the two sound like an unlikely pair, the collaboration bolsters the ’80s sound and visual aesthetics present through the album and related music videos. While it adds cohesion, the song itself can feel a bit awkward in it’s failing to blend the two artists’ sounds together.

With its ’80s-inspired music and aesthetics, “After Hours” is a fresh take on The Weeknd’s original sound that fans new and old will be able to appreciate.

The Weeknd plans to tour the album in North America and Europe beginning on June 11. The artist is scheduled to perform at PPG Paints Arena on June 26.