The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, has had a great past two years. After Hours was one of the best–selling albums of 2020 and 2021, and spawned the number one greatest single of all time, “Blinding Lights.” Just last year, Tesfaye headlined the Super Bowl and released the follow–up single, “Save Your Tears,” a duet with Ariana Grande and one of the best–selling songs of 2021. It would be an understatement to say that the Canadian artist is at the top of his game, even if Grammy voters said otherwise.
The question for Tesfaye becomes this: what does one do following a massively successful album with even bigger singles? Coming from a highly productive era means even higher expectations; Other artists who've faced this question have approached it differently—and with varied results. Lady Gaga followed her debut album The Fame, which spawned multiple hits, with the cultural juggernaut Born This Way, garnering the approval of the public and critics alike. On the other hand, Carly Rae Jepsen followed Kiss and “Call Me Maybe” with the less commercially successful, albeit still critically acclaimed, E•MO•TION. Both artists attempted to experiment with new sounds but ended up steering their careers in opposite directions.
Dawn FM, then, is Tesfaye's own answer; one which cements his career trajectory alongside the likes of Gaga. He has already proven his worth with After Hours, but his newest release showcases his versatility and musical genius without sacrificing his ear for radio chart–toppers.
In a Variety interview from May 2021, Tesfaye revealed that “if the last record is the after hours of the night, then the dawn is coming,” suggesting that Dawn FM would be a natural successor to his discography. Indeed, Dawn FM picks up where After Hours left off, continuing the pop star’s flirtation with the sounds from the ‘80s. He once again worked with producers Max Martin and Oscar Holter, the team behind the smash hit “Blinding Lights,” for the lead single “Take My Breath.” But that’s really where the similarities end.
Even though After Hours and Dawn FM are both inspired by ‘80s music, comparing the two would be like measuring a–ha’s “Take On Me” against Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Both might be from the same decade, but are not cut from the same cloth. Dawn FM feels stylistically different from After Hours, with the former being moodier, more electronic, and funkier and the latter relying more on synth–pop and R&B. Likewise, Tesfaye is more pessimistic, nihilistic, and even hedonistic in the subject matter, making Dawn FM feel more candid than the optimistic After Hours.
This is perhaps best represented by the second single, “Sacrifice.” Backed by an electro–funk instrumentation, the song samples “I Want To Thank You” by Alicia Myers from the early ‘80s to create a dance floor–worthy tune. Tesfaye sings about a self–indulgent lifestyle and not wanting to sacrifice who he is for someone else, a reversal of the singer’s statements on After Hours' title track, where he’d “risk it all” for another’s love.
“Gasoline” is a hit made for the dance floor, but Tesfaye openly admits, “It's 5 AM, I'm nihilist / I know therе's nothing after this.” This sentiment is opposite to the opening track of After Hours, “Alone Again.” Both center around substance abuse and an unbalanced relationship with a lover, but on Dawn FM, Tesfaye just doesn't seem to care anymore. On “Here We Go…Again (feat. Tyler, The Creator)” and “I Heard You’re Married (feat. Lil Wayne),” Tesfaye mentions the dark side of love: The former adds more references to his excessive lifestyle (“Macallan shots 'til it burn throats / We still celebratin' Super Bowl”) and the latter laments a lover for being unfaithful (“But why you even with him if you're cheatin'?”). These lyrics show a side of Tesfaye that's been largely absent since his earliest mixtapes, one that is more boastful and cares less about consequences.
That’s not to say the influence of After Hours is completely gone. Tracks like “Less Than Zero” and “Is There Someone Else?” would fit sonically in After Hours, but the difference is the subject matter. “Less Than Zero” is synonymous with being cold–hearted, and Tesfaye sings about feeling guilt over an unspecified wrong action (“I couldn't face you with my darkest truth of all”). “Is There Someone Else?” finds the singer asking an unnamed lover the titular question, knowing that they’re “hiding something from [him].” The brutally honest lyrics feel more forceful and more direct, offering us a glimpse of Tesfaye’s true feelings.
Littered between the tracks are snippets of spoken dialogue, courtesy of Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones. Carrey's contribution was to serve as a pseudo–radio show host for the album, as denoted by the opening track (“Dawn FM”), the middle of the album (“Out of Time”), and the closing track (“Phantom Regret By Jim”). These interstitials support the theme of Dawn FM, making the listening experience feel especially curated—like a radio show for the audience. The seamless transitions between songs add to this concept, and in the livestream premiere of the album (now present as lyric videos), the Canadian artist even acted as a DJ.
As cohesive as Dawn FM is, it may actually be too cohesive. Upon multiple listens through the album, all the tracks begin to blend together into a blur that's only interrupted by the dialogue–filled interludes. Of course, Tesfaye’s intent was for the experience to be a bit psychedelic and existential. He described the album as one a person would listen to if they were stuck in purgatory or a limbo state, and the subject matter and constant sameness contribute to that feeling. In doing so, however, the songs can sometimes lose their unique identity.
Maybe that was the point. Music at times is really about the audio experience, a feature this album largely capitalizes on. With a stellar production team and strong creative direction, Tesfaye relies on listeners to just tune in and vibe, and it pays off. Dawn FM is meant for a club where you get lost in the beat, the long road trip with nothing but nature around you, or as the artist described, being stuck in traffic, trying to fill the void of time.
Tesfaye has already begun teasing his next album, dubbing it as the final installation of the After Hours trilogy. Dawn FM is a solid step up from its predecessor, and one can only imagine what the pop star will do next. Dawn FM is more than just a great Weeknd album; it's a noteworthy work of art that invites the audience to just enjoy music for itself.