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The Joyless, Isolated Pop Bombast of the Weeknd Returns at a Too-Perfect Moment

Abel Tesfaye is set to release his new album, ‘After Hours,’ to a world primed for his brand of dour, lawless hedonism

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Where the fuck’s the black light?” demands the Weeknd, the woozy synthesizer smearing, the packed nightclub crowd whooping, the bottle-service sparklers blazing, the pained grimace on Adam Sandler’s face darkening. “No, I asked for black light. I’m not performing until there’s fuckin’ black light on this fuckin’ stage.” Black! Light! Black! Light! the audience dutifully chants. Until he gets what he wants, nobody gets what he wants.

It’s just about midway through 2019 Oscar-darling-in-our-hearts Uncut Gems, and there sits the Toronto-born R&B lothario born Abel Tesfaye, mic in hand, petulantly awaiting his fuckin’ black light. He’s playing a surlier and seedier version of himself, maybe. (“Go fuck the Weeknd, all right?” Sandler’s character will soon snarl at a lady friend, after attempting to beat up the Weeknd.)

Based on the actual game footage of the Sixers-Celtics Eastern Conference semifinals, if we’re taking this movie’s chronology seriously—and fuck you if you’re not—Uncut Gems takes place in May 2012. Which is to say 14 months after House of Balloons, the first of the Weeknd’s startling trio of free 2011 online mixtapes, changed the sound, or at least the perception, of 2010s R&B. And just one month after Tesfaye’s triumphant first appearance at Coachella in April 2012, crooning eerily rapturous Balloons leadoff track “High for This,” the crowd chanting every word right back at him. That scene is startling, too, and doubly so given the fact that he’s standing there in broad daylight, smiling.

The Weeknd’s fourth studio album, After Hours, is out Friday. Fantastic timing, Abel. No, really. It’s not the catchiest genre name he’s ever inspired, but “self-quarantine R&B” still fits, given the miserable I-feel-so-alone-during-this-threesome isolation that powers his very particular brand of joyless, lawless, loveless, hopeless hedonism. This is shelter-in-place music; this is living-in-my-Maybach music.

As with its three predecessors, the challenge facing this record is to keep that lucrative brand from hardening into schtick or self-parody; the results thus far, based on early singles, are mixed. The dour “Heartless” (heh), for example, emerged in December 2019 and almost immediately hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 despite opening with the boneheaded line “Never need a bitch / I’m what a bitch need” and sticking to the grim-lavish sonic formula so relentlessly that Slate chart guru Chris Molanphy dubbed the Weeknd “the 2010s’ answer to AC/DC.” Even dirty deeds done dirt cheap are subject to diminishing returns.

Yeah, the “Heartless” video, which needs to calm down, didn’t help. But the outlook for After Hours has since improved. In early March, the Weeknd served as the last musical guest on Saturday Night Live for quite a while, thoroughly enchanting host Daniel Craig and showcasing two far better tracks: the suspiciously propulsive synth-pop jam “Blinding Lights” and the even more suspicious prom-ready power ballad “Scared to Live,” backed onstage by Uncut Gems composer Daniel Lopatin. Given Tesfaye’s (and Lopatin’s) sordid history, you spend that whole lovely song braced for the sucker punch, the post-dubstep death drop, the trap door into abject darkness. It’s almost scarier that it never comes.

Tesfaye’s journey from anonymous Tumblr-era superhero to legit pop star is as dazzling as it is baffling; Uncut Gems, in all its lurid black-lit hostility, was a fascinating portal back to a time when even most of his biggest fans hadn’t yet seen even a picture of his face. Way back in March 2011, the same month House of Balloons was released, one blogger semi-admiringly described the Weeknd using terms like crypto-RnB group, and pointedly stylish content across all the hippest digital channels, and impeccably curated presence, and so perfect for the Tumblr moment I almost think it was designed in a lab, and a Master’s course in building an engaging presence for the cool kids.

Simpler (and cooler) times. In the near-decade since, Tesfaye has gone public, and gone (only relatively) straight, and gone pop, and gone supernova. As we await After Hours, then, it’s worth quickly recounting how far he’s already come, and by that measure how far he can possibly have left to go.

It is near impossible in 2020 to recreate the disorientation of the Weeknd’s impact in 2011, the year House of Balloons and its two immediate follow-ups, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, minted a mysterious new star who for the longest time had no name, no face, no backstory to speak of. (Tesfaye wouldn’t give a proper interview until his Complex cover in 2013.) All anybody knew was that whoever was involved in these mixtapes clearly had impeccable rock-critic-bait taste (House of Balloons alone sampled everything from Aaliyah to Cocteau Twins to Beach House to Siouxsie and the Banshees) and a young Drake’s hallowed cosign. Thursday’s sumptuously drowsy “The Zone” is a lovely pre-superfame time capsule for Tesfaye and Drizzy both, in that they both sound super bummed out about their impending superfame.

Of course, the fabled R&B tides of 2011 also brought us Frank Ocean’s similarly enigmatic Nostalgia, Ultra and, late in the year, Drake’s monumental Take Care: Tesfaye’s wounded falsetto has never sounded prettier, or more wounding, than it did on “Crew Love.” By then the Weeknd had slunk into the spotlight, with an actual record deal (Republic repackaged and officially released those three mixtapes as Trilogy in November 2012) and actual pop-star aspirations. Echoes of Silence kicks off with an extra-harsh cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” and it was unclear at the time whether Tesfaye was trying to drag MJ down to his own übernihilist level, or trying to rise to MJ’s own level of deified ubiquity. Maybe a little of both.

If you’re uneasy about After Hours’ prospects—or perversely eager to experience Tesfaye at his shakiest—then by all means wallow in his proper studio debut, 2013’s wayward Kiss Land. He’s certainly wallowing, of course: “So you’re somebody now,” he taunts less than a minute into the “Professional,” probably talking to a stripper and also himself. “But what’s a somebody in a nobody town?” You know what’s cooler than sampling Portishead on a song with a chorus that starts “I’m not a fool / I just love that you’re dead inside”? Sampling Portishead and pissing them off.

Kiss Land is fascinating now in that it’s the Weeknd’s only true failure, a half-hearted attempt at crossover glory weighed down by Drake-style imperialist whining (“I got a brand-new place / I think I’ve seen it twice all year”) that doesn’t play to Tesfaye’s gutter-loverman strengths. Call it a false start; call it a tax writeoff. A year later, he guested on Ariana Grande’s hyper-noir anthem “Love Me Harder,” quietly one of the better pop songs of the decade (thanks to Swedish pop superman Max Martin and crew), and in retrospect a crucial turning point for both Grande and the Weeknd.

Tesfaye famously rewrote his verse for the song to make it, y’know, darker, and thusly changed his whole career trajectory. “What could have been a contentious exchange was actually edifying for both parties,” The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica wrote in a 2015 feature with the headline “Can the Weeknd Turn Himself Into the Biggest Pop Star in the World?” that touted the guidance of Republic Records A&R boss Wendy Goldstein. “Martin liked Tesfaye’s changes and kept them; Tesfaye realized he could make sleek, accessible pop on his own terms. He asked Goldstein to secure Martin’s services for his next album. “If I’m gonna be the biggest in the world,” he told her, “I need a handful of songs like that.”

The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, not so quietly the best pop album of 2015, had a handful of songs like that. (It was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, and lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989.) “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night” are as close as anybody’s come in the 21st century to Michael Jackson–style grandeur, but nothing on Madness felt like a sellout move or an abandonment of Tesfaye’s malevolent core principles or lack thereof. His very first no. 1 hit, after all, was the horrorcore dirge “The Hills,” with its self-annihilating (and self-actualizing) chorus of “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” Like his old pal Lana Del Rey, you can’t say the guy didn’t reach the top on his own fucked-up terms.

Your mileage on 2016’s luscious victory lap Starboy, with its Daft Punk team-ups and extra-self-pitying ruminations on fame, may vary. The song with an endless chorus of “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name” meshes a little too well with the song with an endless chorus of “This ain’t ordinary life.” We get it, dude. Better: “Goddamn, bitch, I am not a teen choice,” he observed on “Reminder,” salty about now being so famous that he was getting nominated for Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards against his will. That’s actually the funniest thing he’s ever said; the funniest Weeknd-related thing in general is the time Kate Beckinsale, loopy on post-dental-surgery drugs, sang along to bubbly Starboy closer “I Feel It Coming” on Instagram.

It’s all downhill from here, for everybody, presumably. Tesfaye is now a boldface tabloid star whose various love affairs (he’s dated Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid) now provide crucial, albeit possibly erroneous, context for his art. The 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy was slight but effectively despairing: It was no surprise whatsoever to hear him sing the line “I’mma fuck the pain away,” but he’s clearly gotten better at emphasizing the pain over, uh, the fucking.

By one measure, the After Hours tracklist promises more of the same: “Alone Again”! “Hardest to Love”! “Until I Bleed Out”! As usual it’s tiresome almost by design, but somehow nobody’s tired of it yet. The Weeknd knows what you want, which is to be left wanting, to feel as dead inside as he’s (allegedly) felt for the last nine (outlandishly successful) years. He’s still selling cheerless depravity the way Pusha T’s still selling cocaine. He’s still broken. And why fix him?