Galvanizes the strengths of previous efforts without lingering in a sense of stasis.
Abel Tesfaye teases new frontiers on his fourth album, while pushing the boundaries of his brand of genre-hopping R&B, drawing influences from further afield and burnishing a more mature image. Adopting a newfound transgressive compass, After Hours finds the Weeknd enlisting the wizardry of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, fresh from scoring the critically acclaimed Uncut Gems, and forging a partnership that serendipitously evolved from both their involvement in the Safdie brothers’ film. In combining forces, Tesfaye and Lopatin’s subtleties harmonize in a way that leaves a lingering sense that their paths should have crossed sooner. That said, much of After Hours adheres to the glistening, often brash ‘80s synth-saturated pattern that has graced the Weeknd’s output to date, but a broadening scope of influence and left-field collaborative focus reinforces a sense of progress here.
This is, to an extent, well-trodden territory for Tesfaye. After all, 2016’s Starboy saw luminaires such as Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey and Kendrick Lamar chip in on what proved a revival of fortunes for the Canadian artist. A relatively more refined, sublime energy prevails on After Hours, an introspective-leaning, less party anthem-oriented direction presenting itself, despite customary lyrical themes revisited at times. Where the latter does resurface, it is rendered with an understated, less sleazy aesthetic—a trend that elevates the record beyond the anachronistic social attitudes that laced his first three albums.
Kevin Parker, of Tame Impala fame, leaves his syrupy creative stamp on “Repeat After Me (Interlude),” which scintillates with the Aussie psych-pop maestro’s familiar Day-Glo iridescence. Standouts such as single “Blinding Lights” catch the Weeknd retreating to old habits, the balance between emotional substance and dancefloor-designed pop struck with an emerging realization that the target listener is perhaps growing older and moving on. Just as Parker buried a creeping world-weariness in sugar-coated shimmer on The Slow Rush, Tesfaye betrays glimpses of fragility; the overtly superficial, borderline parodic front of the past not completely traded away but tempered to a degree that passes as semi-genuine self-awareness.
Lurking subterranean electronic ambiance shares space with peppy pop melodies in a dynamic that doesn’t feel entirely forced; a flow underscores the album, shaking off contrivance and capably flitting between emotions and styles with relative concision, a trait not often associated with the Weeknd’s work. The Elton John-sampling “Scared to Live” continues the nostalgia-fueled mission objective that reached its zenith on Starboy, notably its brazen sampling of Tears for Fears and the Romantics. Elsewhere, the sax-lacquered “In Your Eyes” and sizzling bliss of “Heartless” counteract more ruminative moments, while the propulsive neon-drenched driving beat of “Save Your Tears” stands as further proof of Tesfaye tightening and recalibrating his songcraft.
After Hours ultimately marks a transition for the Weeknd, the Grammy-winning artist appearing determined not to stagnate, galvanizing the strengths of previous efforts without lingering in a sense of stasis. Re-evaluating the past while glancing to the future, the Toronto native, despite lofty pretensions, manages to deliver the core goods for those expecting a soundtrack to sun-dappled summer days inside or outdoors, lockdowns permitting.