Who is The Weeknd? I’ve always felt that this vowel-snubbing vocalist was somewhat of an enigma in modern music. This isn’t only because of his rare and almost unparalleled ability to blend hip-hop, R&B and pop (whatever that means) into an expressive finished product; it also comes from his unique capacity for self-awareness. This isn’t to say that The Weeknd is the only popular artist of our day to exhibit this quality. I think many SoundCloud-rappers-turned-breakout-stars like Lil Uzi Vert and NAV are actually quite self-aware, just not in the same way. I enjoy listening to the artists mentioned above from time to time (my housemates can attest), but eventually it gets to a point where it’s just too much for me, and I’m left having to forcefully resist the desire to yell, “enough already” at the moody picture on NAV’s Spotify page while I simultaneously queue up 10 more of his songs, hoping that somehow those droning, auto-tuned vocals and hypnotic trap beats will push me to finally finish the essay I’ve been putting off.
Let me elaborate quickly, because I think this distinction is really important in understanding what separates The Weeknd from other big names in the music industry. Every successful artist (even Kanye West) is in some way married to the persona they’ve created for themselves — it’s how they cultivate a dedicated fan base — but stars like the ones mentioned above sometimes take this to an extreme. Artists like Lil Uzi, NAV (I’m using a loose definition of “big name” here) and others have found a lane for themselves by buying heavily into the glitzy and drug-fueled Hollywood lifestyle. This is actually where their self-awareness comes from — they know how to repeatedly draw attention to their wealth without making you lose interest. But, there’s a price to be paid: This repeated emphasis creates such a strong association in our minds between artist and lifestyle that the two become essentially indistinguishable from each other. Gunna (who has yet to release an album without the word “drip” in the title) doesn’t keep writing verses about Bentley trucks and iced-out wrists just because he’s proud of his success; he also does it because at this point, these things define who he is as an artist. He’s invested so much into his lifestyle that he can’t afford to stop reminding you of its salient features. The artists I’m referencing here are all extremely successful, so clearly what they’re doing is working, but the persona of someone like NAV is so set in my mind at this point that I couldn’t really imagine him being anything other than a moody Hollywood socialite.
The Weeknd is different. There’s this sense you get when listening to his music that deep down he feels uneasy living a life of excess and indulgence. This awareness fades in and out as the tone of his music changes — it’s completely absent from songs like “Six Feet Under” from 2016’s “Starboy” — but there are moments in every one of his albums where it’s obvious that he’s struggling to reconcile himself with his hedonistic lifestyle. This self-awareness breeds a sense of urgency — a need to extricate oneself from the hedonism before it’s too late — and from this combination we get some of The Weeknd’s best work. Tracks like 2015’s “The Hills” don’t just rank among The Weeknd’s most popular songs because they’re catchy. They’re popular because they take this urgency and insecurity and shine a spotlight on it. Even “Starboy,” a song that basically amounts to The Weeknd singing his own praises to the tune of Daft Punk, has some conspicuous moments of uncertainty in it. The line “House so empty, need a centerpiece” shows a flicker of insecurity under the bravado.
The reason why I bring this up is because The Weeknd’s latest studio album “After Hours” (2020) sees him take this urgency and self-awareness further than he ever has before. He’s not exactly subtle about it either; the opening lines of the album’s first song “Alone Again” — sung in that characteristic falsetto over eerie synths — are literally “Take off my disguise / I’m living someone else’s life.” While it may not be the next “Born in the U.S.A.” in terms of subtlety, it really doesn’t have to be. “After Hours” is all about The Weeknd’s bitter struggle to extricate himself from the pit of self-indulgence, and any doubt that this album is moving in a new direction is erased by the “Alone Again” line “How much to light up my star again / And rewire all my thoughts?” As much as he might want to fall back into the numbing embrace of his own nihilism, The Weeknd has looked behind the curtain and there’s no turning back now; the Starboy’s lost his star.
Every song that follows (with one notable exception) further increases the sense of insecurity that The Weeknd feels about his own identity, creating a sense of urgency that permeates the album just as much as the bouncy ‘80s-inspired synths that make tracks like “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” so undeniably catchy. He’s pretty blunt about it throughout the entire thing, too. “Too Late,” which comes right after “Alone Again,” has him delivering lines like “We’re in hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights” and the sixth song is literally called “Escape from LA,” which I’m pretty sure is about as on-the-nose as you can get.
After “Escape from LA” we get “Heartless,” which I alluded to as the one song that feels starkly out of place on the otherwise tonally-consistent “After Hours.” It’s not that it’s bad on its own, but this upbeat track produced by industry titan Metro Boomin honestly feels really jarring in the context of the rest of the album, like it was just kind of plopped down unceremoniously right in the middle of everything (it’s the seventh song out of 14). I don’t want to say that having your lead single produced by someone with as many accolades as Metro Boomin was just a clever way to hype up the album’s release, but it’s hard not to see it that way.
That being said, “Heartless” in no way ruins “After Hours” as a whole, and the urgency comes back without missing a beat on “Faith,” an eerie track that fades out to the sound of distant sirens and warped vocals referencing an overdose. Then we get to “Blinding Lights,” arguably the catchiest song on the entire album. There’s a reason this song peaked at number one on the charts — it’s amazing. But here, like elsewhere, the upbeat synths belie a more unsettling message about The Weeknd’s struggle (and maybe in this case his failure) to extricate himself from a life of glamour and excess. It isn’t a coincidence that “Faith” and “Blinding Lights” blend seamlessly together; they both explore the theme of glamour and opulence as blindness. On “Blinding Lights,” lyrics like “Sin City’s cold and empty / No one’s around to judge me” suggest a feeling of freedom and elation, but you’re never quite sure if this feeling is the result of a triumph over nihilism or a descent back into it. The album’s last two songs, “After Hours” and “Until I Bleed Out,” cast The Weeknd’s future in an even more uncertain light, with the last verse of “Until I Bleed Out” consisting of the line “I keep telling myself I don’t need it anymore” repeated over and over as the accompanying synths become increasingly mangled and warped. We know what “it” is; we just don’t know if The Weeknd’s succeeded in breaking the cycle.
There’s a reason why The Weeknd’s appearance changes completely every time he releases a new project: Every album is a new iteration of himself, a new chapter in his story. And to be honest, the most interesting part of The Weeknd to me — the thing that separates him from many other big names in the music industry — is that we have no idea where he’s going. The cover art for “After Hours” shows him grinning at the camera as blood drips down his face, and as the last song ends, we still don’t know why he’s smiling. Maybe it’s because he succeeded in escaping Los Angeles and its hedonism, or maybe it’s because he failed and is more hopelessly tangled up in it than ever, à la NAV. I don’t mean to get all meta (my days of studying philosophy are over), but due to recent events, the future has become incredibly uncertain for many of us, and although listening to this album won’t solve any of the pressing problems we as a global community are dealing with right now, I think it can be comforting just to sit back and listen to an artist who is as uncertain about his future as we are about ours.