“Every man has to settle down eventually. You know why you gotta settle down eventually? Because you don't want to be the old guy in the club. You know what I'm talking about. Every club you go into, there's always some old guy. He ain't really old, just a little too old to be in the club.”
-Chris Rock, Bring the Pain (1994)
This joke is part of a longer tangent about how it’s difficult to commit to a relationship, but it’s an analogy that works for music too. To give off the same aura that you did at 30 that you did at 22 takes many things, not the least of them being a healthy dose of self-awareness. MC Hammer and his parachute pants were on top of the world in 1990, but fast forward six short years and he was painfully washed up. Kanye West went from being the architect of “Life of Pablo” in 2016 to being a Trump-supporting gospel musician in 2019.
Point being, it’s hard to keep an act fresh for a long amount of time. Music, especially the brand of music that The Weeknd has been making for years, is a young man’s game, which makes his career all the more impressive. After bursting onto the scene with his “Trilogy” series of mixtapes in 2010, the Toronto native has been a pop culture fixture ever since then, with radio hits like “Starboy” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” as well as high profile collaborations with artists like Drake and Ariana Grande.
His public image since then has been largely the same-the dreadlocked r&b singer who balances a sex and drug addiction-with some exceptions, like Starboy’s more pop-friendly sound. When the Weeknd announced his most recent album, “After Hours,” earlier in the year, it coincided with the release of the film “Uncut Gems,” where Weeknd played a memorable cameo role as himself, where he does cocaine with Howard Ratner’s girlfriend at a nightclub and gets punched in the face by Ratner. His bloody face in that scene after taking the shot from Ratner mirrors his bloody face on the cover.
The movie is set in 2012, meaning that the Weeknd is cast as the up-and-coming r&b star he was at the time. It’s an intriguing act of self mythologization, and one that harkens back to the darker motifs of “Trilogy” and “Kiss Land.” Weeknd isn’t in “the old guy in the club” territory just yet, but he’s old enough to have been a pop culture fixture for a while, old enough to play his past self in a movie, and old enough that it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he’s lost his touch. This album, good or bad, would set the tone for the Weeknd’s late-career.
“After Hours” dropped on Mar. 20 amidst a sea of hype, and it absolutely lived up to fan’s expectations. The album is cinematic in scope and presentation, and its versatility makes it special. One of Weeknd’s biggest strengths has always been his ability to balance vulnerability and bravado.
A substantial amount of songs on the album are about regret and desire to make up with past relationships, but they’re counterbalanced both by production (the drum & bass production on “Hardest to Love” was a welcome surprise) and by a sense of easygoingness on the Weeknd’s end (lines like “we was at Coachella going brazy / stack a couple M’s like I’m shady” are a pleasant counter to lines like “I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me”).
The album draws heavily from 80s synth-pop as well. “In Your Eyes” draws upon 80s pop ballads (complete with a saxophone solo), and “Blinding Lights” features the Weeknd’s vocals absolutely gliding over a synthpop inspired beat. It wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Miami Vice” chase scene or “Rocky” training montage, but it also fits perfectly into the album. It’s 3 minutes of conflicting emotions that feels nostalgic and timeless all at once-in other words, it’s a perfect Weeknd song.
One of Weeknd’s strengths has always been his ability to evoke strong visuals in short terms, and this album provides the perfect canvas for him to do that on. Visions of post-overdose ambulance rides, pining over exes under a star projector, twenty million dollar empty mansions, and quick trips to Coachella all bounce off each other perfectly and paint a vivid picture of someone who has everything but is going crazy in spite of (or perhaps because) of it.
There are two movies that align similarly with the story this album tells. One is “Uncut Gems,” the story of Howard Ratner attempting to gamble his way out of a multi-million dollar debt while his life falls apart. The other is “After Hours,” a Martin Scorsese movie from 1985 about a man who attempts to find his way home from SoHo after meeting a woman in a cafe. Both of these movies feature a protagonist who goes on a tumultuous journey in search of something, and they both feature main characters who keep finding themselves in a more dire predicament as the movie goes on. There’s something almost romantic about the quixotic journey the protagonists take through the big city, and while I didn’t expect to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson in this review, sometimes it really does feel like their destination is the journey.
The Weeknd said in an Apple Music interview around the time this album dropped that “You can find love, fear, friends, enemies, violence, dancing, sex, demons, angels, loneliness and togetherness all in the After Hours of the night,” and it sums up the album pretty well.
The Weeknd, at least as he portrays himself in “After Hours,” is a flawed individual. He’s still not over a past relationship, he blames himself for the misery that has befallen him, and he gets over all of this through late nights in Las Vegas. Throughout the album, he’s searching for...well, we never figure out what it is, and it doesn’t seem that he does either, but there’s an underlying assumption that the Weeknd is lost and needs to find something.
The album ends with the Weeknd lying on the floor, telling himself he doesn’t need any of this. It’s up to the listener whether or not they believe him. Regardless, this album tells a story, the songs hold up as a unit or by themselves, and the Weeknd proved that he hasn’t lost his touch. It’s an easy 8.75/10, I’d definitely recommend it.