5 takeaways from the Weeknd's new album, Dawn FM

2022's first blockbuster release is here. We break down the Canadian star's 5th studio album.

2022's first blockbuster release is here. We break down the Canadian star's 5th studio album

Toronto R&B star the Weeknd has released his fifth studio album, Dawn FM. (XO/Republic)

Almost two years after putting out After Hours, a record that marked the beginning of the pandemic for many, the Weeknd is back with his fifth studio album, Dawn FM.

It's been a busy few years for the Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye). After Hours dominated 2020, becoming the fourth best-selling album of the year. Its lead single, "Blinding Lights," spent 86 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, making it the top Billboard Hot 100 song of all time

In addition to that, the Toronto R&B star also headlined the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show, collaborated with everyone from Rosalía to Post Malone, and publicly declared a boycott of the Grammy Awards after "Blinding Lights" and After Hours received zero nominations. (While Tesfaye didn't submit any of his own music to the 2022 Grammys, he still nabbed three nominations for his contributions to albums by Doja Cat and Kanye West.)

Had the pandemic eased up enough to allow for big stadium tours again, Tesfaye would've been on the road promoting After Hours. But due to continued restrictions worldwide, Tesfaye admitted to Rolling Stone in September 2020 that he "might have another album ready by the time this quarantine is over." That album turned into Dawn FM. "If the last record is the After Hours of the night, then The Dawn is coming," he teased in May 2021, during an interview with Variety.

With its release just days into the new year, Dawn FM is Tesfaye's effort to extend his winning streak, perhaps all the way until the quarantines are really over. The album's 16 tracks expand on the sonic palette of brooding synths, funk-inspired riffs and obvious nods to Michael Jackson, an idol Tesfaye has paid homage to for years.

Below, CBC Music breaks down some of the biggest takeaways from the Weeknd's latest release. 

A long list of special guests

The Weeknd is no stranger to collaboration, most recently capping off 2021 with guest appearances on FKA Twigs' "Tears in the Club" and "Poison," a posthumous Aaliyah track. On Dawn FM, Tesfaye invited an eclectic list of musicians: Quincy Jones, Tyler, the Creator, Oneohtrix Point Never and Lil Wayne. While Tesfaye hasn't worked with Tyler, the Creator before, the pop/R&B singer shares histories with many of his other guests. 

In 2013, Tesfaye appeared on "I'm Good," the opening track on Lil Wayne's Dedication 5 mixtape. This was two years after Lil Wayne's protegé, Drake, invited a then emerging Weeknd to perform at Toronto's OVO Fest, marking one of the Weeknd's first live performances ever. 

Electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never's name appears on Dawn FM the most, having worked on 12 of its 16 tracks. OPN (real name Daniel Lopatin) scored the Safdie Brothers' 2019 film Uncut Gems, where Tesfaye made his acting debut playing a 2012 version of himself. The following year, the two artists teamed up again when OPN remixed "Save Your Tears" for the Weeknd's After Hours remix EP, and the Weeknd provided vocals for OPN's single "No Nightmares." 

And just last year, Tesfaye received the Quincy Jones Humanitarian Award at the first annual Music in Action Awards hosted by the Black Music Action Coalition. In his acceptance speech, the Toronto singer shared the story of the first time he met Jones, and how that moment stayed with him. He added that Jones was "the reason why I do this." 

Other artists and producers who helped co-write or produce songs on Dawn FM include Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Max Martin and Quebec-born producer DaHeala. 

Another Uncut Gems Easter egg 

While Oneohtrix Point Never's name is all over the credits of Dawn FM, he's not the only Uncut Gems affiliate to appear on the album. The film's co-director, Josh Safdie, plays a character named Arthur Fleminger, a voice that appears on the track "Every Angel is Terrifying." 

Introducing the voice of Dawn FM: Jim Carrey 

Canadian actor Jim Carrey is featured throughout the album, serving as narrator in the style of a late-night radio DJ from yesteryear. He first appears on the opening and title track: "You are now listening to 103.5 Dawn FM," he says, soothingly. "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. But what's the rush? Just relax and enjoy another hour of commercial-free-yourself music on 103.5 Dawn FM."

In a 2021 GQ interview, Tesfaye revealed that he had developed a friendship with the fellow Canadian. He and Carrey had been exchanging text messages, and Carrey even surprised the R&B star on his 30th birthday (which happened just before the pandemic hit) by taking him out to breakfast. "He lived literally like two buildings down from me," he told the magazine. "He had a telescope and I had a telescope. He was like, 'Where do you live? What floor do you live on?' I was like, Blah, blah, blah. And we looked out the windows on our telescopes and we could see each other." 

Narrator isn't the only role Carrey plays on the album: it concludes in a highly original fashion with "Phantom Regret by Jim," a spoken-word track that finds Carrey channelling another Canadian bard, Leonard Cohen, with hushed delivery and evocative, rhyming verse. An electric piano and synthesizer establish a mood evocative of Prince, who's actually referenced in the line, "When the purple rain falls, we're all bathed in its grace." The track concludes with a summarizing motto that's food for thought: "You've got to be heaven to see heaven." 

When Dawn FM was announced earlier this week, Carrey took to Twitter to express his admiration for Tesfaye: "I listened to Dawn FM with my good friend Abel @theweeknd last night. It was deep and elegant and it danced me around the room. I'm thrilled to play a part in his symphony." 

The Weeknd is at odds with himself again

The Weeknd uses narration and interludes from both Carrey and Jones to set a thematic tone as the album progresses. Through Jones, the listener learns that this is a journey into confronting how early trauma and dysfunction impact our relationships later in life, while Carrey poses metaphysical and existential questions on the aforementioned final track, "Phantom Regret by Jim." "How many grudges did you take to your grave/ when you weren't liked or followed, how did you behave?" he asks, St. Peter-like, evaluating life's ledger at the pearly gates. "Was it often a dissonant chord you were strumming/ were you ever in tune with the song life was humming?"

There's a hopefulness to this record but it's mired in uncertainty. While the possibility of redemption and change are ever-present, Tesfaye seems too at odds with himself to grasp them. From song to song he flips from wanting to rectify his past transgressions to simply succumbing to the man he's tried so hard not to be.

On "Best Friends," he sings about a relationship that cannot be, referencing past toxic love and not wanting to repeat old habits: "Oh, I don't want to be responsible/ for your heart if we fall/ 'cause I'll get clumsy and tear it apart." On "Is There Someone Else," he admits he doesn't believe he deserves someone loyal to him but he's working on it: "I don't want to bе a prisoner to who I used to be/ I swear I changed my ways for the better, the better/ 'cause I wanna be with you forever, forever." But by the penultimate track, "Less Than Zero," he seems resolved that he cannot change: "I'll always be less than zero/ you tried your best with me, I know/ I couldn't face you with my darkest truth of all." Throughout his many eras, from House of Balloons to Dawn FM, the Weeknd's one dominant theme has always been the conflict within himself. 

But his musical inspirations keep evolving 

For an artist who first appeared with a fully formed, brooding R&B sound, Tesfaye has broken out of that mould in recent years and found success in embracing a little bit of everything, from '80s funk to modern-day EDM. Dawn FM boasts a variety of sonic experimentations, and the Weeknd's more electronic tendencies are brought to life thanks to architects like Oneohtrix Point Never and Swedish House Mafia, perfectly exemplified on a track like "How Do I Make You Love Me?"

Elsewhere, pop hitmaker Max Martin takes guitars and synths and transforms them into disco-inflected bangers such as the album's lone single, "Take my Breath." The rhythm guitars resemble a mix of '80s funk and Daft Punk on "Sacrifice," which is built atop a sample of Alicia Myers' 1981 track "I Want to Thank You." And on "Less Than Zero," a tender acoustic guitar opens a new-wave lane that we've never seen the Toronto singer explore before, a rare moment of sonic levity (it's also one of two tracks on this entire album that is in a major key).

But it wouldn't be a Weeknd album if Michael Jackson's influence wasn't present, and it's most palpable in the singer's performance on the shimmering "Out of Time," a track that uses a sample of "Midnight Pretenders" by Japanese artists Tomoko Aran and Tetsuro Hamada, but which also employs harmonies that recall the work of the Jacksons.