The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Weeknd’s decade of dystopia

The Weeknd performs at the 2015 Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

Technology has altered nearly every aspect of life, a pandemic has brought the world to a screeching halt and the systems implemented to preserve order have crumbled. This isn’t some bleak sci-fi portrait of the future: it’s our current reality.

On March 20, at the conclusion of a week that saw the majority of the nation forced indoors because of the novel coronavirus’s rapid spread, the Weeknd released his fourth album (and third No. 1), “After Hours.” Many will say the pop star’s latest songs — all of which charted on the Billboard Hot 100 — are “timely” because of the wanton darkness of his music, but that’s too neat an assessment of an artist who finds such pleasure in society’s seedy underbelly.

The Weeknd is a character Abel Tesfaye created: the id who acts on all of his worst impulses. Although he announced “After Hours” a month before covid-19 began crippling North America, the timing of its release would’ve been welcome even if we weren’t amid a global health crisis.

Music is a form of escapism, but the Canadian singer’s music is a reflection of the mayhem, not relief from it.

No matter the phase of his career, the Weeknd has always depicted a version of dystopia — one that has expanded from his own world to the world at large. It is as essential to his music as sex, drugs and self-loathing, the vices he uses to cope with his existence. And it has been the prevailing theme of his artistry over the last decade.

The Weeknd’s sound — haunting, distant, steely — emerged from the scorched earth of 2000s R&B, which had waned by 2011. That’s when he unveiled the influential mix tape “House of Balloons,” which, love or hate it, helped change the genre aesthetically during that decade.

It was the door into an amoral world of prolonged hangovers, glass tables adorned with cocaine and ever-present clouds of stress weed. The exploits — infidelity, substance abuse, apathy, rinse and repeat — are those of disaffected youth motivated by their setting. The Weeknd’s falsetto belies the nature of lyrics like “You’re in my world now, you can stay,” an invitation that’s more possessive than hospitable on “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.” “You wanna be high for this,” from the opening song, “High For This,” is advice from someone for whom the aforementioned lifestyle is routine. He lived to chase the highs of “The Party & The After Party” and, per “Coming Down,” only genuinely cared about women when that high faded.

The Weeknd had never left Toronto and its outskirts by that point, so “House of Balloons” illustrated his entire world, however volatile it might have been. It was the claustrophobic score to his depravity. “ ‘House of Balloons’ is based off of a one-bedroom apartment I shared with all my friends,” he told GQ in 2017. “And we did what we were doing and then put it into music.”

So if “Balloons” is the manifesto of an artist molded by the chaos of his environment, “Kiss Land” is the work of one who’s found more of the same elsewhere and cloaked himself in it.

The Weeknd’s 2013 debut album chronicles similar experiences in new dystopian surroundings. In his very first interview, a conversation that year with Complex, he described “Kiss Land” as “an environment that’s just honest fear.”

“Just like ‘House of Balloons’ symbolizes Toronto and my experiences there, but it’s a world that I created,” he explained, noting that he felt “Dark World” was too generic a title. “When I think about ‘Kiss Land,’ I think about a terrifying place.”

The Weeknd told Complex that the album was about seeing the world beyond Toronto for the first time. It’s an ode to tour life, where the musician’s elevated profile and first journey outside of the city enabled more debauchery in new scenery.

The music, cold and industrial, builds the atmosphere. The album begins with a rush of ominous synths on “Professional,” which concludes with a steep crescendo and intense background percussion that amplifies the overall sense of dread.

“The Town,” eerie to the core, is about reuniting with a woman he left behind. The title track is a two-part plunge into the darkness, where the Weeknd goes full-degenerate during the latter half: “Been gone for so long I might have just found God/Well, probably not, if I keep my habits up … ”

As the Weeknd became a full-fledged pop star, his actions grew more sordid to mirror his element. Recklessness became habitual.

“The Hills,” from 2015’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” is a discordant anthem for self-destructive boredom, emotional unavailability and exasperation with celebrity. “Party Monster,” from 2016’s “Starboy,” glamorizes the Weeknd’s drug-addled quests for one-night stands.

Both albums spotlight the glitzy immorality of Los Angeles, the Weeknd’s current wasteland. “No matter how dark my experiences were” during his mix-tape era, “it’s nothing like L.A.,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015.

“After Hours,” his strongest album to date, is uniquely fed up with L.A. Heavy with sinister 1980s electropop — the perfect underlay to his vivid miasmic imagery — it’s also the Weeknd’s most jaded record.

“We’re in hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights,” he sings on “Too Late.” In between critiquing his own warped reality, he alludes to others. After admitting “Cali was the mission, but now a n---- leaving” on “Snowchild,” he references Philip K. Dick, the late sci-fi writer who penned the books that inspired “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner.” We don’t have flying cars or murderous androids just yet, but the latter is set in the same modern-day City of Angels the Weeknd wants to flee.

“Take me out of L.A., this place will be the end of me,” he sings on “Escape From LA,” named after John Carpenter’s 1996 post-apocalyptic action film. But this iteration of the Weeknd is no anti-hero chasing sobriety; he’s just running from the excess of Hollywood, mistakes made in the Valley and secrets buried in the Mojave Desert. The proof that the Weeknd doesn’t want to change lies in “Alone Again,” where he reveals he’s seeking refuge in Las Vegas — another city of overindulgence that’s been paralyzed by covid-19.

As contemporary pop’s preeminent nocturnal overlord, the Weeknd’s music has always been the backdrop to a lifestyle no one should lead — he even warned “this ain’t nothing to relate to” on “Kiss Land.” “After Hours” would be right on schedule even if we weren’t forced into indefinite isolation.