By Botond Pinter
The intrinsic power of art can be wielded for a limitless set of purposes; fostering affection for the villain is but one of its many insidious possibilities. Siding with the antagonist is something that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern cinema, literature and music. Often, we become empathetic of a villain and, sometimes without even realising it, we permit ourselves to root for them.
Abel Tesfaye, better known as ‘The Weeknd’, is arguably the most successful self-proclaimed villain in contemporary pop-culture. Since 2009, Abel has zeroed in on portraying a dark, dysfunctional and nihilistic character. His music has always told fans of his nonchalant approach to life where absurdism is embraced in its full pandemonium. This form of noir-pop saturated with sex, drugs and empty romance produced the perfect villain whose enchanting voice captivated us. There was just one problem: the villain was too perfect. He was evil in every respect and was entirely unapologetic. Whilst many fell in love with the character, whether through a sense of dark fantasy or simply seeing 'The Beauty Behind the Madness' (as his 2015 album was entitled), his character was flawed in being one-dimensional - often singing of the same shameless lifestyle.
In Abel’s previous attempts to give his character some more depth, or a raison d’etre, we simply received a melancholic soliloquy which did little to develop our bond with the villain. In his recently released fourth studio album, 'After Hours', we finally encounter a new dimension of Abel’s devious villain. He submerges the listener in chilling anecdotal sketches that reveal emotions and ideas he had never explored before. Abel promised us a “brain-melting psychotic chapter” and that’s exactly what his new album delivers. It’s filled with ostensible self-contradiction, but under the surface displays almost unblemished harmony as his story becomes infused with self-loathing and a defective will to become a better man. In other words, this is a record about change. Those same cold lonely lines from the Trilogy era appear throughout 'After Hours' in their reversed form. The themes of change and reversal are most apparent in the fifth song on the album; 'Snowchild'. Abel guides the listener via anecdotes of his ambitious and tormented youth, portraying his lust for fame and fortune whilst delving into a dark underworld of drugs and relentless promiscuity. His motivations are the same as those he described in his 2011 song The Morning, in which he determines the pinnacle of success as the California dream. Snowchild, however, gives us a surprising twist. The lyric “Cali was the mission” reveals his change in attitude, and the next song on the album, Escape from L.A., appropriately captures the newly held sentiment. Abel believed that he would become fulfilled through money, drugs and sex, yet once he had achieved everything he previously desired, he feels emptier than ever. Instead, what he truly seeks for is a partner to settle down with and “share babies” – this is his vision of happiness. The optimism is short lived. Abel believes he had already found ‘the one’, but had hurt her in a failed relationship as a result of his inability to stay loyal and convey the love that he claimed to have for her (there is little doubt that Abel is referring to his relationship with Victoria’s Secret Angel Bella Hadid, whose recorded laugh is audible at 1:51 of Snowchild). He begs for a second chance. Sadly, our villain’s voice is more remorseful and apologetic than hopeful. His near certainty in defeat is what retains the dark, seemingly never-ending storm within him. When there remains nothing to hope for, Abel is quick to return to the ways of his earlier self despite a desire to become a better man: “I’m back to my ways cause I’m heartless”. This dark storyline is complete with masterful production by the likes of Illangelo, Kevin Parker, Ricky Reed and DaHealaeach adding a unique style. The final track on the album, 'Until I Bleed Out', is arguably the greatest example of the musical genius involved. The euphoric tapestry of sounds brings the listener to a climax of pleasurable pain as the album draws to abrupt end.
All in all, Abel gives us an irresistible work of art. It would be wrong to neglect mentioning the commercial success that After Hours has already enjoyed. The singles 'Blinding Lights' and 'Heartless' demonstrate the collision of Abel’s enigmatic R&B style and commerciality. Abel’s creativity in his music videos as well as the additional cinematic clips are just another element to love about this project. Nevertheless, this article has not so much focused on the numbers and commercial success behind the operation, but instead on the deeper meaning within the music. Abel’s villain is more breath-taking than ever. Our indulgence in his dystopian world may have been solely for imaginary excitement and escapism, but now that the façade of perfect evil has fractured, his villain has become one of flesh and blood. And yet, despite admissions of guilt over and over again, we love him more than ever. The Weeknd’s ability to manipulate us so through music is perhaps why he should be considered one of the greats of all time. Undoubtedly, Abel has a long career ahead and we await his villain’s next moves with bated breath.