On 'Dawn FM,' The Weeknd crafts a synth-pop epic : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Weeknd's album After Hours was one of the biggest hits of 2020, and now the elusive artist is back. He's had a decade of massive highlights from "Blinding Lights" to last year's Super Bowl Halftime Show. His new album is Dawn FM, and it's a set of sleek synth-pop songs with assists from Oneohtrix Point Never and comedian Jim Carrey.

On 'Dawn FM,' The Weeknd crafts a synth-pop epic

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The Weeknd's album "After Hours" was one of the biggest hits of 2020. Now he's back with a new record called "Dawn FM." It's a set of sleek synth pop songs with guest appearances by Lil Wayne, Tyler, the Creator, Oneohtrix Point Never and Jim Carrey. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we're talking about The Weeknd on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining me today is writer Kiana Fitzgerald. Hey, Kiana.

KIANA FITZGERALD, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. How's it going?

THOMPSON: It's going well. Also joining us is NPR music contributor Reanna Cruz. Hey, Reanna.

REANNA CRUZ, BYLINE: How are you doing, Stephen?

THOMPSON: I'm doing great. I'm so glad you both can join me to talk about this record. So "Dawn FM" is the fifth album by The Weeknd, also known as singer Abel Tesfaye. The new record follows a decade of massive pop hits like "Can't Feel My Face," "I Feel It Coming" and the record-setting chart-topper "Blinding Lights," as well as a well-received headlining performance in last year's Super Bowl halftime show. "Dawn FM's" release is a bit of a surprise. It was announced just a few days before it came out last Friday. But it is a fully formed concept album built around an otherworldly radio station with a DJ voiced by Jim Carrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAWN FM")

JIM CARREY: You are now listening to 103.5 Dawn FM. You've been in the dark for way too long. It's time to walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms. Scared? Don't worry. We'll be there to hold your hand and guide you through this painless transition.

THOMPSON: Sonically, these songs draw on 40 years' worth of impeccably stylish synth pop and R&B. Kiana, you've been following The Weeknd since the beginning of his career. What do you think of "Dawn FM"?

FITZGERALD: As you said, I've been listening to The Weeknd for a great deal of time, and this is not The Weeknd from 2011. You know, he's - in my eyes, he's cleaned up his act significantly, so to speak. He doesn't really speak as graphically about his vices as he used to, I'll say. And, you know, I feel like that's all a part of his ascension as an artist. I feel like he's excited to be the big pop star that he's become. And he's not afraid to, like, make the new decisions that lead him in that direction.

So this album, for me, is expected because he's kind of been going on this journey for a while in terms of the '80s pop sound, the synths and everything like that. Like, he's kind of been doing this for a while. But, you know, I still - part of me was like, oh, I wonder if he's going to sound like "House Of Balloons" on any of these songs? And, you know, that was not the case. So I think, at this point, people who are holding on to that version of The Weeknd should kind of let that go and just accept the fact that he is who he is now.

THOMPSON: Which is a big, big, big, big pop star.

FITZGERALD: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Reanna, how about you? What did you think?

CRUZ: I - so I also have been following The Weeknd for a while. I specifically really enjoy his pop albums. "Starboy" is one of my favorite albums of all time. I streamed that till the cows came home. Love that record. "After Hours" and, by extension, "Dawn FM" feel a sort of continuation of these themes and sounds that he's explored over the past several years. And I think that "Dawn FM" is his most cohesive record of this sort of transition. I think he's cleaned up sort of his overall vision on what he wants to achieve. I think his lyrics are tighter. I do think this album has a lot of personal growth, like you said, Kiana. Like, he's not really doing the sort of, I am doing so much coke and am a toxic womanizer, et cetera. Like, he literally says on the record - he's like, you are my best friend. And he's like, oh, I heard you're married. Oh, man, that sucks.

THOMPSON: Right.

FITZGERALD: Yeah.

CRUZ: And that is such a radical sense of growth from the man on previous records who talks about, you know, just womanizing and having male manipulator tendencies and, like, being this sort of pinnacle of what it means to be toxic in relationships. And this record, I feel like, is the sort of epitome of that transition for him. And I think he knows it, too. There's the note from Quincy on the album, which Quincy Jones talks about how the women in his life have left, and that ruins his relationships and romantic endeavors throughout his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TALE BY QUINCY")

QUINCY JONES: Whenever I got too close to a woman, I would cut her off. Part of that was vindictive and partially based on fear.

CRUZ: And I feel like that's indicative of The Weeknd himself, and it's saying, yeah, I'm self-reflexive. So I think, from a personal stance, this is his most cohesive record in terms of growth and also sound. And I really enjoyed it.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I came down more or less the same way that you guys did. I think it's been really interesting to chart his evolution, not only in the lyrical content but in this transition from what I think a lot of people think of as a singles artist to making an album that feels really cohesive. And I think even when you look at "After Hours," "After Hours" had a concept around it. If you ever saw any of his TV appearances associated with that record, it was this kind of high-concept thing about, like, this dark night of the soul where he's gone out into this debauched world and come out of it all beaten up. And this record is also built around a concept. It's built around the concept of, I guess, like, you're listening to a radio station in purgatory...

FITZGERALD: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Is kind of the idea, and they have a bunch of these spoken-word interludes. Reanna mentioned Quincy Jones pops up for a spoken-word thing. Jim Carrey kind of bookends the record somewhat, especially with this closing poem that I actually found kind of surprisingly effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PHANTOM REGRET BY JIM")

CARREY: And how many grudges did you take to your grave? When you weren't liked or followed, how did you behave? Was it often a dissonant chord you were strumming? Were you ever in tune with the song life was humming?

THOMPSON: But it is more kind of thematically and sonically cohesive than I've felt he's pulled off in the past. And I think a lot of the songcraft (ph) here works really, really well. And that's kind of what I want to get to next is sort of we haven't necessarily had a chance to live with these tracks for a really, really long time. This record didn't get the typical run-up where they release three, four or five singles from it in advance of the release date. Only one of these songs had really been available before this album dropped, and it came out, like, last summer. So, you know, we're really getting to know all these songs in real time. Did you guys have highlights that you want to talk about, like tracks that really jumped out at you?

FITZGERALD: Yeah. So the first track that really, really stood out to me is "Sacrifice," which samples "I Want To Thank You" by Alicia Myers. As soon as I heard that sample come in, I was like, oh, yeah, this is going to be my jam. Like, this is the song for me off this album. And also, it just has this very, very Michael Jackson "Thriller" guitar going, and it feels like you've been transported back to that era, but in a different sense, you know? It's not like we're in the '80s that we knew. It's like, oh, this is a reimagined '80s or this is an...

THOMPSON: Right.

FITZGERALD: ...Innovative take on what that would have been, had we had the information and the sounds and the technology that we have now. So, yeah, "Sacrifice" is definitely my favorite as of this moment.

THOMPSON: Let's hear a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SACRIFICE")

THE WEEKND: (Singing) My, ooh. My, ooh. Every time you try to fix me, I know you'll never find that missing piece.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's a banger. Reanna, do you have a song that jumps out for you?

CRUZ: Yeah. I - something I really enjoyed about this record is his very blatant influence from '80s synth-pop bands and the sort of like dark new wave. And I think "Gasoline" is a really great representation of that. And he even starts with singing in this sort of Depeche Mode, like - I've heard comparisons to David Byrne - like, this sort of faux British voice that's deeper than his usual register. That immediately stood out to me because it's the second track on the album. So you get past the whole intro, and then immediately he hits you with this weird - just the weirdest voice possible.

THOMPSON: Yeah, let's hear some of that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GASOLINE")

THE WEEKND: (Singing) It's 5 a.m. my time again. I've soaken (ph) up the moon, can't sleep. It's 5 a.m. my time again. I'm calling and you know it's me.

CRUZ: Yeah.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Man, I was in the '80s, and I can speak to how spot-on that captures that Depeche Mode sound. But he does a really nice job, as you say, of kind of picking and choosing elements of it without necessarily sounding like one thing.

CRUZ: Yeah, which I enjoy. I think when albums try to beat-by-beat copy sounds of a previous era, I think it comes off as very rote. That's why I don't really like the Silk Sonic record...

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: ...For those reasons. And I think this does a very different job with that sort of pastiche. And he takes elements further down the album when he leans into the sort of, like, "Miami Vice" disco vibe. It works really well because he's taking it into the new era.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I think pastiche is a really, really apt word for what's going on here. I mean, he has been, you know, alternately praised and dinged for sounding a lot like Michael Jackson at times. If you have heard the song "I Feel It Coming," it is, like, one of the best songs that Michael Jackson never wrote (laughter). You know? And so he's managing to evoke a lot of those sounds without necessarily, like, falling back on tics or imitations that make it impossible to get out of the headspace of this is what he's trying to do.

For me, my favorite song on this record comes right around the end. It's really interesting, Reanna, that you mentioned that Depeche Mode...

CRUZ: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Style song that pops up so early on the record. In some ways, I feel like you could almost take this record in reverse order and find it's just as effective because the song "Less Than Zero" - I just was struck by how sleek and stylish and infectious. I could imagine hearing that song on the radio as often as I heard "Blinding Lights." But I would be happier about it. I really think it's one of his best songs. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LESS THAN ZERO")

THE WEEKND: (Singing) 'Cause I can't get it out of my head. No, I can't shake this feeling that crawls in my bed.

THOMPSON: There's a soaring quality to it that just hits me right where I want to be hit by a pop song. And I think it also straddles a really interesting line that pops up on this record between some of the darker themes of debauchery that he's touched on a lot in his career and some of the slightly more, like, at risk of being mawkish quality that comes up in a few of these songs. The songs are a little bit sweeter than he's usually been. And to me, this song is just landing right in that sweet spot between those two approaches.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. This is the most polished and palatable version of The Weeknd that we've, you know, seen so far. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I feel like he's not afraid to shake off some of the dirt and the mud that kind of, you know, stuck to him as he was coming up very, very early in his career. This isn't the typical thing that I would listen to just because I am a very big hip-hop and R&B fan. But I do find myself enjoying these moments and these songs where - I don't want to curse, but, you know, he's a starboy, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

FITZGERALD: He's exactly who he set out to be. So I'm very excited for him and that he's growing in the way that he wants to.

THOMPSON: Well, I guess kind of the last thing that I wanted to touch on in this conversation is his evolution as a pop star, you know, and kind of - I want to see if we can get at, like, what sets him apart from other pop stars because it's sort of fascinating to me to watch how he started out as almost this - at least coming at it from a pop perspective, like, almost kind of an anonymous figure, kind of a studio figure. I mean, you know, he had a pseudonym he was working with. I didn't necessarily feel like I knew him the way you're made to know other pop stars. I'm just curious what you think of his evolution and kind of what sets him apart.

CRUZ: I actually disagree with the notion that I don't really know him because I think through "Trilogy," I got a very clear picture of who The Weeknd is. I understand the perspective of being like, he's a studio artist, kind of faceless, kind of nameless. But that's what made "Trilogy" so distinctive, is that he is all over that record. You know, he bleeds into every single lyric, every single sound. And most of what we hear in modern sort of R&B is source to the "Trilogy" and is source to "Kiss Land." And you can kind of trace that line from then to now.

What I like about this record - and it dawned on me as I was - no pun intended, it dawned on me as I was re-listening - what makes The Weeknd The Weeknd for me and what I realized about his career is that that man is a freak. He is weird. He is strange. And I think once we realize that The Weeknd is a freak and is making weird music, then everything opens up because I saw his previous records as, like - on "Starboy" and "After Hours," I saw him dipping his toe into the sort of maximalism that he toyed with on his previous albums. "Beauty Behind The Madness" has a lot of that in it. But this album finds him fully leaning into the maximalism and fully leaning into Daniel Lopatin's music and his sort of sensibilities, which are these electronic, weird, futuristic productions.

And that coupled with the sort of concept - it's different. Like, I don't really see that from a major pop record these days. I don't see people enlisting Jim Carrey, a weird guy. I love Jim Carrey - Jim Carrey superfan here. I think comparing Jim to The Weeknd is an extremely apt comparison. They're both strange. They're both, like, enigmatic, hard to pin down. And that sort of comparison is really apt for an album like this, which kind of defies what a mainstream pop bestselling record can be. It's him doing what he wants to do because he has the platform to do it and doing it effortlessly.

THOMPSON: Well, I think we'd agree. We like this record.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: We want to know what you think about The Weeknd. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Kiana and Reanna, for joining us today.

FITZGERALD: Thank you.

CRUZ: Thank you for having me.

THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

One last thing before we go - we are going to be talking about "The Golden Girls," and we want your questions. You can email us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, you can send us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. We will see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the new film "The Tragedy Of Macbeth."

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