2021 marked a decade of Abel Tesfaye, known more by his stage name The Weeknd, telling the world of his tumultuous lifestyle. Over the span of three mixtapes and four albums, he has successfully branded himself the master of recounting the late night escapades that lead to morning regret. The true king of passing off heartache as jadeness.
In 2022, however, Tesfaye returns with an album that breaks free from this self made mold. Dawn FM, a 16-track album that plays like a radio station you stumbled upon in 1985 rush hour traffic, at last exposes the soft white underbelly of a man who has spent the last 10 years convincing us he’s too cool to care. (Spoiler: He does actually, very much.)
The opening handful of tracks, a quick-paced jumble of songs mixed to bleed into each other like a euphoric night out on the dance floor, showcase Tesfaye’s ability to make selfishly dark lyrics like “when you cry and say you miss me, I lie and tell you that I’ll never leave” feel like an entransing love song.
The first act of Dawn FM, then, is distractingly retro.
It’s in particularly eccentric tracks like “Sacrifice,” co-produced by house music supergroup Swedish House Mafia, that attempts to avoid becoming lost in their sound become futile. Like a siren luring sailors into the dark waters of the ocean, Tesfaye succeeds in deceiving listeners into believing that they know what they’re in for.
Though, when the music finally cuts away, it’s the voice of legendary producer and musician Quincy Jones that fills the eardrum. What follows is a monologue meant to shift the tone of the album and foreshadow what’s to come. If ‘Dawn FM’ were a radio show, this is the segment where you reach out to turn the volume up, curious to listen to the tale of the absent mother who caused Jones a lifetime of distress and romantic turmoil.
From there, the album bursts into a softer melody. Sampling 1983 Japanese pop song “Midnight Pretenders,” Tesfaye pulls back the curtain in “Out of Time” to reveal the part of him that struggles to accept a past riddled with mistakes. Flawlessly encapsulating the emotion behind finding the right words just a little too late, when the person you want isn’t there anymore, boosts “Out of Time ” into the album’s most stand out track. It’s Tesfaye’s dreamy croons that have your fingers itching to text an ex.
Ironically, Tesfaye’s enigmatic flair is also his greatest fault. In a time where artists rely more than ever on collaborations and features from others for success, Tesfaye’s bold stylistic choices make artists within his vicinity fall flat. Verses from Tyler, the Creator on “Here We Go…Again” and Lil Wayne on “I Heard You’re Married” feel lazy in comparison to the world Dawn FM exists in. It’s as if they just so happened to be in the studio at the time of recording and Tesfaye was too nice to say no to including them. It’d behoove Tesfaye to trust his musical ability enough to let it stand alone. After all, music titans like Prince and Michael Jackson, both of which Tesfaye has been compared to, would have never made the grave mistake of throwing someone like Eazy-E on “Purple Rain” or “P.Y.T.”
He blazes through the rest of the album, wrestling between wanting better for himself and chasing after a love that he knows isn’t right for him. “Best Friends” sees him chastise toxic relationships yet he then goes on to sing to a woman in love with another man in tracks like ‘Is there someone else or not?”
It’s through this chaotic back and forth that Tesfaye is at his most vulnerable. It’s The Weeknd in a light he’s never been in before. Two years and a global pandemic later, the man that once sang “Never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch needs” now kneels at the feet of his beloved, begging her to let him make her feel whole again.
While it’s hard to picture someone of Tesfaye’s status having spent lockdown at home like the rest of the world, the choice to shed the calluses of his previous persona reeks of someone who spent the bulk of quarantine in a self-reflecting rut.
This is exemplified through the robotic narrations of Jim Carrey, Tesfaye’s real life neighbor and friend, who floats in and out of tracks to guide listeners through their emotional journey.
In “Every Angel is Terrifying,” Carrey loosely quotes from “Duino Elegies,” a 1923 poem by Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Famous for its existential themes, the work weighs the pleasures of life against the woes of human mortality.
These off-the-wall references edge Dawn FM toward the philosophical, proving that it’s tracks are more than frivolous ballads of affection but a legitimate documentation of Tesfaye’s search for meaning in the abyss of wealth and fame.
Due to turn 32 in February, this album reflects Tesfaye in a new season. It plays as if he knows he’s too grown—too old— to hang on to the seedy Los Angeles clubs and ill-fated relationships that brought him to this level of fame. Wherever Tesfaye were to take his talent from here, it is sure to be one that reflects this new, more genuine version of him.
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