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The Bond-like Hedonism of the Weeknd

Abel Tesfaye’s ‘After Hours’ is his most accomplished and coherent project to date—and something to project your basest desires onto

Scott Laven/Getty Images

Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.

On March 7, which now belongs to an entirely different era of human life, Daniel Craig hosted Saturday Night Live.

He seemed to have the time of his life doing it—Craig wasn’t too cool to wear a wig, pass up a single histrionic make out, and leaned into whichever excessive accent the joke in question required. His dutiful commitment to all the bits reminded me of his Benoit Blanc, the Southern-fried private eye in Knives Out, and Joe Bang, the hillbilly munitions expert from Logan Lucky—both characters that you get the sense Craig got to make choices about, unlike the role that made him the most money, James Bond. No Time to Die will be Craig’s final Bond movie, whenever it comes out, and once again his action suit will be tastefully dotted with soot as he whips an Aston Martin through the cobblestone streets of some exotic locale, glowering and being emotionally distant. SNL poked fun at the self-conscious grimness that defined Craig’s Bond films for, wow, 14 years, with a sketch in which the showy MI6 agent spends a little too much time at the craps table. The Weeknd was the musical guest.

I bring up Craig and Bond and SNL because I’ve been thinking about how the phrases “after hours”—the title of the Weeknd’s new album, out last Friday—and “no time to die” evoke a similarly hammy self-consciousness. James Bond is a ridiculous concept in the main, being the world’s loudest and most obvious secret agent, but functionally, he’s an empty vessel for your average male’s basest desires—having sex, driving fast, and blowing shit up. No Time to Die then, as a title for a movie that will probably start with a car chase and end with a coup de grâce, almost seems A.I. generated. Ditto for After Hours: Since his introduction in 2011, the Weeknd has grown from faceless “alternative R&B enigma” to cover star, successfully scaling his wee-hours, sullen, sexy, I’ll kill us both vibe for mainstream audiences. “The Weeknd” is also kind of a ridiculous concept: a sexy, vengeful ghost with commitment and impulse-control issues. Even if it weren’t called After Hours, you could guess that cocaine and nontheism were involved. Like Bond, the Weeknd fucks, drives fast, and blows shit up (relationships). Here is his explanation of the album title, in his own words:

“You can find love, fear, friends, enemies, violence, dancing, sex, demons, angels, loneliness, and togetherness all in the After Hours of the night.”

“Scared To Live” probably speaks to the “angels” portion of that—the song, made in tandem with Max Martin and Oscar Holter, is a soaring ballad in which the Weeknd expresses joy and pain where once there was crushing melancholy. Vulnerability, or at least the suggestion that others practice it, is a new trick for the Weeknd. His idea of love still looks the same though: On “Faith,” which sounds lifted from Kavinsky’s Nightcall sessions and shows up just after the album’s halfway point, The Weeknd says, with a straight face, “If I OD I want you to OD right beside me.”

After Hours is the Weeknd’s most accomplished and coherent project to date: Beauty Behind the Madness struggled to make his House of Balloons–era hedonism and lofty pop ambitions jell, Starboy was more of a playlist of 18 expensive-sounding songs than an album, and we don’t need to talk about Kiss Land. After Hours is his most intentional project yet, from the leisure suits and tortoise aviators he wore in all the videos and promo shoots to the ’80s synth pop the best songs on Hours are indebted to: “Save Your Tears,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Blinding Lights.”

I can’t say that the Weeknd’s writing has improved leaps and bounds—see “Snowchild,” on which he says he’s dropping off “Philip K. dick,” or “Heartless,” which begins “never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch need”—and the self-conscious twistedness he traffics in can still come off as hacky. (The heavy-eyed “Escape From LA” leaps to mind; you can only have so much sex in the studio.) And yet, After Hours is The Weeknd’s best work so far, and indicates the reconciliation, once and for all, of his R&B pathos and desire for mainstream viability. Of the 14 songs, “Blinding Lights,” which has been out for months, is still the most emblematic of that. It comes already assembled and radio friendly, so that everyone, not just your average male, can project their wildest, sexiest desires onto it. The drug is a lover, and withdrawal leads you to dance. And once the song’s over, you want to go back for another hit. Which seems, to me, like the platonic ideal of a song from the Weeknd.

Now for some recommendations:

“Lalaland” by Jaxxon D. Silva

The Skepta feature to grab the most blog headlines last week would have been “Papi Chulo,” the new Octavian single. It’s a union of two of the most culturally relevant rappers in the U.K., but also between the new and old guard: Skepta, the seasoned veteran, and Octavian, the ascendant star. Less newsworthy was his appearance on U.K.-by-way-of-L.A. rapper’s Jaxxon D. Silva’s “Lalaland,” a two-minute song on which Skepta steals the spotlight, obviously. About halfway through Skepta’s verse, there’s this amazing, honest-to-god passage:

Australian ting,
and she blowin’ on me like a digeridoo
My jeans by my ankles,
and I keep my t-shirt on like Winnie the Pooh

“To be Remote” by TOKiMONSTA

Producer Jennifer Lee’s roots are in the Los Angeles beat scene but, more and more, on each new project, she opens space in her intricate arrangements for vocalists. Often, on Oasis Nocturno those vocalists can outshine her production, because that’s what vocalists do—you might miss the subtle strings in “Fried For the Night” because EARTHGANG is rapping. Some of Oasis’s best songs, by contrast, are purely instrumental. “To be Remote” flies off the handle at about the 2:30 mark, when a vocal sample is stretched thin and spooled around a bridge before being layered into the remainder of the song. It’s every bit as confounding as it sounds.

Zack Fox’s “Imagine” Video Remake

Last week, in what I’m sure was an honest attempt to quell our mounting and variegated anxieties due to a global pandemic, Gal Gadot enlisted the help of a bunch of celebrities you know, and a handful you don’t, for a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video was lambasted because it was a dumb thing to do in the first place; on the order of things rich people can do for the public good in a time of crisis, singing isn’t high up. Others pointed out that Gadot’s cover was in the spirit of the original: Lennon penned the words “imagine no possessions” while being worth an estimated $800 million.

Comedian Zach Fox decided to get a different group of (internet) famous people to do his own cover. Of “Slob On My Knob.” Stay safe out there this week.