The Weeknd: “After Hours”

The Weeknd’s epochs can be clearly defined as pre- and post-“Can’t Feel My Face.” The mysterious character of his mixtape trilogy cut an enigmatic figure lurking seedy club and hotel corridors, and producer Max Martin transformed him into a radio-friendly Kids’ Choice Award nominee, a progression that led to an eventual rebirth as a Daft Punk-retrofitted Starboy. He straddled the line on his last EP, My Dear Melancholy, but there has always been an explicit conflict between the volatile, shapeless R&B of his breakthrough and the sophisti-pop of his star turn.

The Weeknd did it Martin’s way on the upbeat, incandescent “Blinding Lights,” an obvious contender for Top 40 radio charts. Now he’s reverting back to old habits for “After Hours,” the title track from his upcoming album. Well, sort of—while the track is moody, long, and somewhat restless, it is never as spellbinding as his old work nor as advanced as his newer material. Co-produced by the Weeknd, Trilogy mastermind Illangelo, frequent collaborator DeHeala, and singer-songwriter Mario Winans, the song opens with his old signature style—falsetto, echoes, and recurrent tones—until suddenly it erupts into dance production. “I turned into the man I used to be,” he sings, but the transformation is incomplete, and he seems stuck halfway.

While the song’s dark atmospherics are reminiscent of the Weeknd’s early music, there is a noticeable thematic shift: “After Hours” is an apology for who he was and a vow to change. It is a remorseful pivot away from unapologetic hedonism. “I was running away from facin’ reality/Wastin’ all of my time on living my fantasies,” he sings. This is the Weeknd at his most repentant and cliche, willing to give it all up just to hold her close. The irony is that the man he’s apologizing for is the same emotionally abusive low-life featured on the album’s lead single, “Heartless.” It seems these shifts in the Weeknd’s mood are as inevitable as the phases of the moon he prowls under.

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Bad Bunny & Sech: “Ignorantes”

It seems crazy that it took this long to get a Bad Bunny and Sech collab. “Ignorantes” is a reggaetón romantico Arnold Palmer; Sech’s sweetness perfectly contrasts with the bite of Bad Bunny’s AutoTune croon. The Valentine’s Day ballad is credited to Panamanian producer Dimelo Flow, who was behind Sech’s world-conquering smash “Otro Trago,” and who has become an artist in his own right since signing to Interscope late last year. “Ignorantes” is essentially “Otro Trago pt. II,” only slightly boosting the BPM on the dembow riddim as Bad Bunny and Sech similarly lament a breakup and wallow in self-pity (“La soledad no me asusta, pero dormir solo no me gusta”).

Over a sparse beat bolstered by well-placed hype man harmonies, the duo glosses over fights and dwells on the good times, like wearing your lover’s hoodie post-coitus, or waking up to their kisses. Yet, el conejo malo also sounds downright despondent, and though he may not be known for the sharpest diction, here it seems like he can barely get the words out. As he wails “pero qué rico cuando chingamo,” it’s clear he misses the booty—a lot. “Ignorantes” finds the duo at their most self-reflective; this isn’t either artist’s first song about a failed relationship, but it’s a rare urbano example of shouldering the blame without embracing the shittiness that led to the collapse (“Soy Peor,” anyone?). This newfound self-reflexiveness expressed in the song combined with the music video, a celebratory display of next-level futuristic fits and r and mixed race couples, reminds us that bah boni is a different kind of urbano artist.

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Justin Bieber: “Intentions” [ft. Quavo]

“Heart full of equity, you’re an asset”—is this a Justin Bieber lyric, or a Jeff Bezos sext draft? The pop star’s latest single, “Intentions” ft. Quavo, is a loving tribute to his wife that reads like an eerie mishmash of corporate slogans. Taking a page from “natural beauty” campaigns, Bieber croons “picture perfect, you don’t need no filter” over equally uninspired ringtone beats. Not only are his platitudes reheated leftovers from the likes of One Direction and Drakehey ladies, did you know you’re beautiful?—they’re also easy to dispense when the 23-year-old you’re talking about has modeled for Guess, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger.

In the “Intentions” music video, Hailey Bieber is notably missing. Instead, hedge fund jargon and feel-good clichés narrate the success stories of three women of color affiliated with Alexandria House, a Los Angeles-based transitional shelter that supports women and children experiencing financial hardship. (The video ends with an announcement of a $200,000 donation from Bieber, only slightly more than he’s paid for years of dumb stunts, like egging his neighbor’s house.) A noble cause to be sure, but whatever Bieber’s original intention, his presence risks turning charity into spectacle. The white millionaire dances with black and brown children and proffers empty advice to a foster care advocate. The attempts to center himself make “Intentions” feel more like a self-serving PR campaign for Bieber than an actual act of generosity.

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Moses Sumney: “Cut Me”

Moses Sumney has long been fixated on the detachment that comes with personal or political isolation. To that end, Sumney has called his upcoming album græ a “conceptual patchwork about grayness,” exploring statelessness, the shades of meaning in between, the feeling of being displaced from absolutes. The fourth single from the album, called “Cut Me,” lingers in the masochism of constantly learning things the hard way. The weight of the message is made nearly imperceptible by Sumney’s graceful touch. His surgical falsetto makes precise incisions in the air. He sings of hurt as both motivating and life-affirming, of a need for some kind of friction to create a spark in his soul.

“Well, if there’s no pain/Is there any progress?/That’s when I feel the most alive/Endurance is the source of my pride,” he concludes, his voice dissolving into harmonies as the beat builds. Piano keys and bass open up into buzzing synths and snapping drums, and a horn section swells into focus with Sumney’s voice during the hook. Eventually, this arrangement becomes a gorgeous play on dynamics, exhibiting its musical components individually and as a whole, with Sumney never straying from its center. “Sure, I could do better than this/But I don’t, I won’t, I don’t,” he yelps. As a frayed Sumney pushes through the pain, you’re left only with an intense euphoria.

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Porter Robinson: “Get Your Wish”

For three years, Porter Robinson was trapped in a protracted bout of writer’s block. After pivoting away from mainstream dance music to forge his own path as a multivariate electronic artist in the mid-aughts and becoming one of the most visible artists in the genre along the way, the North Carolina producer was unsure of what to say next. “It was impossible not to ask: Even if I do finish new music, what am I hoping is gonna happen?” he recently disclosed. “What is it I want that I don’t currently have? Am I gonna be happy then? Why am I not happy now?”

On “Get Your Wish,” the onetime Skrillex protégé grapples frankly with that depression. Robinson obscures his voice with pitch-shifting and other effects, as if to shield himself from the vulnerability of his own lyrics, which meditate on hope and ego death, sounding like reminders to his future self. “One day you choke, your urges overflow, and obsession wears you down,” he croons amidst gleaming synth pads. “But don’t you waste the suffering you’ve faced—it will serve you in due time.” Elsewhere, rock drums and lush electric piano lend additional dynamics to his usual rollercoasters of euphoria, while snippets of naturalism (a click track here, a bird whistle there) anchor his alien vocals to reality. Gone are the days of imagined universes and EDM meta-commentary; “Get Your Wish” is a joyful return for Robinson, one that expands the scope of his music while bringing him back down to earth.

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“Physical” Is Dua Lipa’s Biggest ’80s Pop Move Yet

Plenty of current pop stars mine the chintzy sounds of the ’80s for inspiration, but none have concentrated the motif quite like Dua Lipa. The title of the UK singer’s upcoming second LP, Future Nostalgia, underlines her commitment; standout lead single “Don’t Start Now” wears flashy synths and a disco bassline as chunky as the era’s geometric jewelry. “Physical,” the album’s latest single, is her most obvious pastiche yet, setting a chugging, bordering-on-cheesy synth line beneath a melody seemingly descended from Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude.” Of course, Olivia Newton-John’s eternal “Physical” remains the true guiding light for the track’s peppy, Jazzercise energy, but Lipa’s song brushes past simplistic, imitative devotion. She sings about feeling “diamond rich” with her new lover, so keyed up on the honeymoon phase that she can’t sleep. The vigorous chorus is as fit for the gym as the dancefloor. “Lights out, follow the noise,” she snarls in her smoky lower register. “Baby, keep on dancing like you ain’t got a choice.” It’s polite of her to consider there was any other option.

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Mac Miller: “Good News”

Everyone is hoping that Mac Miller’s album Circles, out next week, is going to be different than the usual posthumous album fare. The earnest statement his estate delivered on Instagram is promising, as are the album’s tight tracklist and rumors that the project was nearly completed when Miller tragically passed away in 2018. “Good News,” the album’s first single, is spiritually in stride with Swimming, with a quiet optimism that pierces through the darkness. “Well it ain’t that bad, it could always be worse,” he sings, sounding like he has just enough energy to get the words out. Like much of Swimming, “Good News” evokes the sound of a live band at a beach resort: sleepy guitars, slow drums, and weary singing. Compared to the lo-fi raps and self-production on so much of his best music, it’s a little underwhelming. But Mac’s albums have always reflected his influences at a given time. Though it won’t be his best-remembered song, “Good News” serves as a glimpse into his interests near the end of his life.

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Hayley Williams: “Simmer”

The possibility of a Hayley Williams solo album has been on the horizon since the very beginning. In 2003, the 14-year-old Williams was signed as a solo artist to Atlantic Records, which envisioned her as a Top 40 pop singer, à la Avril Lavigne. She insisted on being in an alternative rock band. She won. And so, alongside the rest of Paramore, she wrote empowering anthems for misanthropic teens to mosh and rip their tights to.

The first word of Williams’ new debut solo single, “Simmer,” is an enunciated “rage.” It hangs in the air like a provocation before she finishes: “… is a quiet thing.” There are flashes of anger here—a surprise use of the word “fucker”—but by its own admission, the song operates at low temperature. There is no distorted, thrashing guitar; instead, it’s accented by watery harp and ominous vocal harmonies. “Oh, how to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” Williams asks, before murmuring, “Wrap yourself in petals/Petals for armor.” The concept of shielding oneself with softness is a mature—and natural—progression from reactionary fury, but it’s not a very exciting one. Between the song’s misty ambiance and the music video of Williams bolting through the forest, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she’s been here before: In 2008, when Paramore recorded a song for the Twilight film series. Like a soundtrack song, “Simmer” sets a mood and asks some hazy rhetorical questions—but too often, this story feels as though it could be passed off to anybody.

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The 1975: “Me & You Together Song”

On earlier singles from their upcoming album Notes on a Conditional Form, the 1975 took stock of the human condition: The eponymous opener “The 1975” was a hopeful monologue by the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, while on “People,” Matt Healy offered a blistering condemnation of the behaviors that brought us to this sorry position—when the looming threat of climate crisis means even something so banal as a Monday morning is a limited resource. But with “Me & You Together Song,” the Manchester quartet makes space for smaller-scale obstacles and personal triumphs within the narrative of imminent and near-incomprehensible loss.

“Me & You Together Song” is the antithesis of those confrontational earlier songs, with sparkling production that feels like it could lock you inside, glassy-eyed, for hours. “I had a dream where we had kids/You would cook, I’d do the nappies,” Healy sings, trying to convince a girl of his love. The song itself is a dream, a story of romance that plays out in a snow-globe where the idea of having kids doesn’t require contemplation of the disaster-struck world they may inhabit in the future. “I’ve been in love with her for ages,” he sings, drawing out the last syllable into a maudlin croon. The song is wholly inoffensive, and maybe that’s the point. It offers a false peace, a lull that lasts as long as the synthetic snow falls inside the glass.

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U.S. Girls: “Overtime”

There are countless songs written about working late and drinking hard. Meg Remy tells another side of the story, about the horror of discovering—much too late—that a partner concealed cash and drank it away behind her back: “Every time I see your grave, I can’t help but think/How I didn’t know that you only drank/The overtime.” The original version of “Overtime,” from U.S. Girls’ 2013 EP Free Advice Column, felt a bit like a hangover, with seasick piano and a beat like a pounding headache. Made over with a sidewinding guitar riff and a twitchy funk rhythm, the new single from U.S. Girls’ upcoming album Heavy Light plays in the volatile emotional space where hurt becomes anger. “You forgot to tell me,” Remy insists, knowing that this forgetting was more like a lie of omission. Behind her, backing vocalists chant “overtime, overtime” until the word begins to split apart—“over time, over time”—the way trust is earned, and the way lies are built. E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons’ remarkable solo dramatizes the shock of deception, but the song is short, the story is already over, and Remy is the last to know.

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