The Weeknd’s ‘Dawn FM’ is a self-reflective emotional relief coated in a groovy ‘80s aesthetic

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

Throughout his musical career, most fans recognize the Weeknd for his dark ballads of drugs and sex, as well as the atmosphere he crafts for each album or track. Whether it be the dark but tempting party scene of his “Trilogy” mixtapes or the poppish sci-fi vibe from “Starboy,” we are guaranteed to hear an emotional downpour that gives commentary on the celebrity lifestyle and his own relationship experiences. The Weeknd’s “Dawn FM” is a change of pace from what the singer has previously released. The album steps away from the moody sleaziness of the Weeknd’s prior works, like “After Hours” or “Kiss Land,” and heads in a more optimistic and upbeat direction. The flourishes of “Dawn FM” make it another strong entry in the Weeknd’s evolution.

The album benefits greatly from fully embracing the synthwave and disco genres. The Weeknd’s previous albums featured tracks that easily sound like they could have come from the ‘80s, such as “Blinding Lights” and “As You Are,” but to have a full album influenced by the synthwave subgenre is an incredible feat when one looks back to his R&B tracks. The Weeknd crafts an immersive experience not just through simply shifting genres, but through embellishments of theatrical effect. “Dawn FM’s” opening track features an interlude from Jim Carrey in the role of a radio announcer as he introduces us to “103.5 Dawn FM” and states that we’ve “been in the dark for way too long/It’s time to walk into the light.” Carrey’s mellow and mysterious line delivery informs us of the album’s unique and positive feeling in reference to the Weeknd’s discography, but it also alludes to the album’s existential quality.

The Weeknd’s new album, “Dawn FM.” (The Weeknd)

In an interview with Billboard in Nov. 2021, the Weeknd equated the listening experience of the album to being trapped in a “purgatory state” after dying. He described purgatory as being stuck in traffic waiting to get to a tunnel of light, “with a radio host guiding you to the light and helping you transition to the other side.” This surreal vision does well in creating an atmosphere and informing us of the artist’s maturation over the course of his career. If we were to consider the album’s cover art of an elder Weeknd and each of the albums a reflection of his own experiences, then “Dawn FM” seems like an acknowledgement of his own struggles and the desire for betterment. The album signals the beginning of a brighter and more fulfilling future for the Canadian pop artist.   

While the new feel may deter fans who prefer his moodier R&B tracks, the Weeknd retains his lyrical artistry and the ability to convey deeper meaning with each line. This particularly shows in the track “Out of Time,” which samples Japanese city pop track “Midnight Pretenders” by Tomoko Aran. With vocals that echo Michael Jackson’s, the Weeknd starts the song acknowledging his own faults as a relationship partner and expressing the desire for reconciliation with a former lover. When analyzing his more romantic songs, his lyrics are usually tied back to his relationships with Bella Hadid and/or Selena Gomez. While his reference to these relationships as the basis for his songs can be repetitive, “Out of Time” builds upon the subject by showing the Weeknd’s growth as an individual. His lyrics suggest he’s reached a point of no return where he can finally feel comfortable enough to express his feelings. The lyrics and “Midnight Pretenders” sample come together to envision an ethereal yet heartbreaking tale that’s hard to disassociate with the album’s cover of an older and regretful Weeknd.

On the other hand, despite the album’s tonal shift, the Weeknd hasn’t completely shied away from harsher themes and does so while maintaining the overall feel of the album. In their first ever collaboration with each other, the Weeknd and Tyler The Creator produce a cautionary song about the downsides of celebrity relationships. Referencing his past relationships and touching on his alleged relationship with Angelina Jolie, The Weeknd hones in on the luxuries of his celebrity lifestyle and the love he receives from being passionate with his craft. Tyler then brings home a verse that criticizes the notion of being married as a celebrity, noting the reality of divorce expenses and prenuptial agreements, all before declaring his songwriting will be used to recoup his losses. Again, the album is self-aware with how heartbreak and reality influences the Weeknd’s songwriting.  

The Weeknd demonstrates an intricate and quintessential auteurship in the expertly crafted  “Dawn FM.” Whereas “After Hours” was a featureless album, the Weeknd makes a strong selection of collaborators for this project. The inclusion of artists, some who aren’t musicians, is a testament to his admiration for various art forms and mediums. Aside from the previously mentioned guests, he features contributions from experimental musician and composer Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never), Lil’ Wayne, DJ Calvin Harris, a spoken-word interlude from composer Quincy Jones and a voiceover from “Uncut Gems” (which the Weeknd cameoed in) co-director Josh Safdie. These collaborators add a strong layer of quality to the project that elevates it to being one of the Weeknd’s best albums. 

For those who tracked the Weeknd’s progression as an artist right from his early mixtapes, it is clear that he is a storyteller as much as he is a singer. Each album is defined by his own personal experiences and celebrity lifestyle. Each of his eras boast a quality and production design reminiscent of what we see in cinema, as he forms light narrative threads across the diverse tones. If “After Hours” is the dark descent into the artist’s soul, drenched in moodiness, then “Dawn FM” is the brighter and groovy ascent to new heights.