After Hours and The Weeknd's Identity Crisis

Since Abel Tesfaye’s commercial breakthrough and Grammy-winning Beauty Behind the Madness swept over American radio waves, the artist more commonly known as The Weeknd has been troubled by a dilemma over his public persona. The same artist whose original blend of underground-electro, indie, and prominent thematic elements of drugs and sex lit up Canadian R&B circles in the early 2010’s has evolved into a mainstream pop prince, who at times has compromised his persona in exchange for mass appeal. In After Hours, The Weeknd finds himself at the conclusion of what has become a five year journey towards a sound that marries his troubled, often graphic lyrics that depict a life of pain and addiction, with glowing production worthy of a global pop icon. In essence, After Hours is dedicated to the commercial unmasking of The Weeknd’s most genuine self, a man conflicted between who he has been, and who the world thinks he is. 
After Hours is all about Tesfaye juggling between a positive public persona, and his raw, drug-influenced origins, and how he can reckon these two extremes with one another in his music. Lyrically, After Hours falls somewhere in between the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of Trilogy-era Weeknd and some of the bubblegum from Starboy. After Hours is most successful when The Weeknd is able to pair bright instrumentation and top-tier production with his gloomy lyrical content. The irony in layering sorrowful musings over a sonic parade of synths and rapid high hats dominates from the captivating opener “Alone Again.” 
Prominent in Tesfaye’s After Hours is a more quiet, dreamy, almost wandering diction. Tracks like “Escape from LA,” “Faith,” and “After Hours” feature a less articulate, duller pronunciation of lyrics than previous projects. This phenomenon is especially evident when compared to the record’s more commercially appealing songs. This vocal styling is blatant, and holds a key storytelling element, in that it represents a certain tentativeness. Coupled with the lyrical content of all three of the aforementioned tracks, all of which see Abel lament the burden of a superstar lifestyle, Abel’s diffident articulation signifies a lack of confidence in a potential evolution back to his former self. This fear of potential mainstream rejection adds a captivating wrinkle to the story of The Weeknd’s identity crisis that plays out in After Hours, despite sacrificing limited vocal coherence. 
At times, the storytelling thread of the album is sacrificed for the purpose of hitmaking. “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears” do just fine as singles but disrupt the continuity of the storyline. The same cannot be said of “Blinding Lights,” which has managed to dominate charts while simultaneously blending right into After Hours’s moody, 80’s aesthetic that The Weeknd crafts on the first eight tracks. “Scared to Live,” a soaring, apologetic ballad sent towards former lover Bella Hadid, functions as a powerful, albeit pop chart-ready condolence to his ex. Disruption of the narrative aside, the hit parade of “Blinding Lights,” ”In your Eyes,” and “Save Your Tears,” is a refreshing breather from After Hours’s emotionally heavy first half, and cleanses the palate for a return to Abel’s emotional depths. 
Overall, After Hours is conceptually a stark contrast from The Weeknd’s earlier work, in that it operates as a consistent thematic unit. It’s a pleasant, musically stimulating, and emotionally satisfying listening experience. The jury is still out as to where After Hours will land amidst the likes of 2011’s now-mythical House of Balloons and Beauty in terms of lasting impact; what is for certain is that the success of After Hours has solidified Abel Tesfaye’s place in the pop music world, whether he is able to reckon with that through his music, or not.