Album Review: The Weeknd - Dawn FM

Album Review: The Weeknd - Dawn FM | Random J Pop

I’ve had several experiences with Abel’s Dawn FM. Each of which has given me differing opinions of it.

When Abel first dropped his follow-up to the stupidly successful After Hours, I scanned through it pretty quickly, and thought ‘Oh. So he’s finally given us a pop album.’ Something which has felt long overdue.

The Weeknd saw his commercial success climb steeply when he started dipping into pop, thanks in part to none other than the pop connoisseur that is Max Martin, with Daft Punk in tow. But he still tried to keep a hand on R&B and Hip-Hop adjacent sounds, which for me, never worked. Because once Abel dipped his toe into pop, it was clear that he suited it better, and I think Abel knew it. The Weeknd finally coming to his senses and doing pop outright is what made me decide that I’d dedicate time to listen to Dawn FM properly, from top to bottom.

Over the *Looks into the camera* weekend, I gave Dawn FM a listen. I liked it. I thought it was a solid album. Some parts of it were spotty. But I enjoyed listening to it, which can’t be said for any of Abel’s previous albums.

Once I’d listened to Dawn FM a few times, I started plucking my favourite songs out (as you do) and putting them into my playlists. I was enjoying them. The Michael Jackson as hell song “Sacrifice” was hittin’. The Tomoko Aran city pop sampling “Out of Time” had the hips moving respectfully. “Less Than Zero” was giving me feel-good white people celebrating an AFC Richmond win. Then I listened to the album again, and my opinion shifted on it. Quite a lot. The impact it had on that first listen was lessened, which is pretty common for any album. But Dawn FM didn’t just have less impact on repeated listens. There was something about it that just didn’t wasn’t working, and it took a while for me to figure out why. I’m still figuring that out. Maybe by the end of this review I’ll crack it. But for now. I’ll just walk through my feelings of this album.

The Weeknd | Dawn FM

Abel deciding to finally embrace pop is the best thing he could’ve done for his career. And one day maybe more Black artists will just go the whole hog into pop, instead of feeling like they need to prove their credibility by doing R&B first; the whole time knowing that they just wanna do pop. It’s crazy that in this day and age, artists who idolise Michael Jackson, who is known as THE KING OF POP, still don’t have the bravery and audacity to just outright do pop from the offset. But we know it’s a record label and politics thing. The music business likes to be able to just file Black artists in ‘Urban categories’, because that’s an easier sell than them doing pop, which is still to this day widely seen as a white genre, even though Black people stay ever present and influencing it. The Weeknd’s image isn’t one that most would associate with a pop artist. And even when a Black artist is pop, they still end up in R&B categories anyway. So it’s going to be interesting to see where Abel’s Dawn FM falls come awards season, because Dawn FM is 100% a pop album. There’s no ifs nor buts about it. And features from Tyler the Creator and Lil’ Wayne don’t make the slightest bit of difference to the categorisation of it. Dawn FM is a pop album.

The Weeknd | Dawn FM

There’s a renewed sense of energy and ownership that comes from Abel on this album, despite it’s bleak theme of being about death. The theme is relatable. Because the way these past two years have gone, if I found myself in the midst of Don’t Look Up, I’d feel refreshed at it all just ending too. The timing of this album is very ideal. Not only have we all been faced with our own mortality as a result of natural disasters, mental health, war zones, poverty, police brutality AND a pandemic on top of it all - but for many of us, our association with life and death has changed pretty profoundly as a result. These things aren’t confined into the past two years. But 2020 was a year which gave us all a shared experience. So there’s a connection that you feel to Dawn FM’s theme of mortality. And even if the past two years weren’t what they were, Dawn FM would still be an album that would resonate, because we’ve all stared in the face of mortality, whether it be our own or somebody else’s in some way or another. And this is what makes Dawn FM an easier album to connect to than any of Abel’s previous works.

Abel has always had some obsession with death, aside from coke and pussy. But framing the whole album under the theme of mortality and that life is a constant state of is all running out of time makes the songs feel all the more poignant. Even in its moments when it’s centering on a particular and specific situation that you can’t identify with, because the theme of every song is always loss regardless.

Able isn’t singing about anything he’s not sung about before. The crux of every song is still coke and pussy. But they sit within this Dawn FM narrative to feel like a story of songs from somebody who is aware that they’re at the end of days. It’s been an underlying theme with many of Abel’s songs and visuals. He seems almost obsessed with the concept of dying or being close to death in his music videos. But here it’s a clear framing for the whole album, and it works well. It’s clever. Because binding the songs in a narrative gives the impression that these songs are about something different to what Abel has sung about before, but it’s the same shit. The intro, song segues and outro, some of which feature Jim Carey (who has an oddly seductive voice) help tie everything together and make Dawn FM something which feels better when listened to as a whole. Some of the songs bleed into one another in such a way that unless you’re watching the play / progress bar as you listen to it, you probably won’t always know when a new song is even starting, which is partly because the markers for songs aren’t always in obvious places. For instance the song “Starry Eyes” starts with what sounds like the outro to “Is There Someone Else?”, because “Starry Eyes” doesn’t actually start until 40 seconds in. And that only stood out to me because I really liked “Starry Eyes” and wanted to run it back, just to find that the start of the song isn’t where or what I thought it would be. This is a minor gripe I have with the album by the way. But it’s only a problem when you pull songs from the album, and I feel it was intentional on Abel’s part, as a ‘Fuck you’ to people who do cherry pick from the album, as he’d rather you listened to it as a whole.

Where my experience of this album shifted on a second listen is that once I’d experience the album as a body of work the first time around, my second listen through highlighted how unessential a lot of these songs are, and how Dawn FM finds a spot and just…stays there with minimal movement in any other direction. Dawn FM sonically is consistent. And it sets a tone throughout. But it does feel like a one trick pony album, where many of the songs bleed into one. There are amazing songs on this album. But I’ve already plucked them out, put them in playlists, and now I don’t feel a need to listen to this album again, and it’s unfortunate. I like the world Abel has built with Dawn FM, but it’s not one I feel compelled to visit again and again, because of the lack of variation and exploration that I feel Abel could have pushed a heck of a lot more.

Max Martin is a constant presence across this album having been involved in the production of 14 of the 16 songs, and co-writing 6 of them. So of course there are songs which just plain hold up, whether on their own or as part of the context of the album. But had Abel cut Dawn FM down from a 16 track album to a tight 10 to 11 track album, it would have come off so much better and made me feel more inclined to listen to it with more frequency. It’s not that there are bad songs on this album. But the songs which are great, stick out because they just sound elevated. They have that extra sauce. The songs punch. The hooks stick. The groove is JUST right. And they also very clearly identify what Abel’s musical sweet spots are both musically and lyrically. And some of the interludes don’t really add anything, they’re just…there. The Quincy Jones interlude was just there because Abel loves Michael, loves Off the Wall, loves Thriller, and loves Quincy, who we know was a big part of these periods of Michael’s career. Dawn FM would have been better off doing what Justin Timberlake did for some of FutureSex/loveSounds and The 20 / 20 experience, which was to give us two-for-one specials with some of these songs. It would have been an easy way to cut down the number of tracks. And given the way some of the songs transition into one another and follow through on themes, sticking two songs in one track would have been an easy thing to do. Imagine how wild it would be if “Sacrifice” was tagged onto the end of “Take My Breath” as a mid-song switch. Wigs would have budged. Even Michael’s press would have felt a slight tug.

The Weeknd | Dawn FM

Whilst Abel is embracing pop, he is still trying to show he’s down with R&B and Hip-Hop with two of the guest features on this album; Tyler the Creator and Lil’ Wayne. Neither of whom add anything to the songs on which they feature, turning in some of their most basic and lethargic verses they’ve probably ever done. It makes absolutely no sense for Abel to have put Tyler on “Here We Go…Again” for the sake of ‘Urban radio’ credibility, when the song already sounds like a Bruno Mars or Silk Sonic song, which Urban radio would play anyway. I think it’s a shame that Abel didn’t embrace the sound of this album and bring in artists who would compliment it. Putting the Pet Shop Boys on “Don’t Break My Heart” would’ve been amazing. Because not only does the whole damn song sound like them, but it’s a collaboration nobody would’ve seen coming. But I guess Abel’s not quite there yet.

Michael Jackson comparisons seem to be an inevitability with male pop and R&B artists, one which many openly invite. Abel is not making shy of the fact that he loves the bundles out of Michael Jackson. I kinda admire how much he’s like ‘Fuck it. I love Michael’ and is willing to let his music and art be a conduit through which he can show how much he loves him so. From his fashion, to his Billie Jean moments in one of his music videos, to even having Quincy Jones feature on the album. It makes it less of a talking point to stick with, because you can just say ‘Oh, he loves Michael’ and then move on. The Weeknd embraces the MJ comparison, and almost warrants them. Versus somebody like Justin Timberlake who seems to be doing his damndest to make out like he is not just another Michael Jackson tribute act, whilst being a Michael Jackson tribute act. Abel’s MJ drawers are in the wind and a dude is proud of it. With Justin Timberlake, biting Michael Jackson and Prince is his entire musical identity. With The Weeknd, MJ is a part of his identity, but not solely. There are elements of Daft Punk, Gary Numan, new wave music and more besides. The Michael Jackson influence is the loudest, but it’s not the only influence that makes up Abel’s music. The broader spectrum of influence on Dawn FM in particular is what makes it a more interesting album to listen to than you’d initially think, if you were to go solely on “Sacrifice” and the discourse surrounding Dawn FM concerning comparisons to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The MJ influence is clear on Dawn FM, but it’s also more than just that.

Credit where it’s due. Dawn FM is an immaculately produced album which does a great job of showing that Abel isn’t a fluke. Dawn FM isn’t perfect. There are missteps. And Abel’s voice is still an annoyance that really pushes me to the line. I really like “Sacrifice”. But the way the chorus hits does A LOT of heavy lifting for how terrible Abel sounds on those verses. But there’s no denying that Abel has a great penchant for songwriting and an ear for good songs. Even the weaker songs on this album are salvageable; being only a tweak away from being something standout.

The Weeknd | Dawn FM

There’s a high likelihood that if you’ve not really been into any of The Weeknd’s prior releases, that you’re probably going to pass on this, or feel no differently about him upon hearing Dawn FM. Which is fair. I’m by no means an Abel fan now, as much as I like songs on this album. Dawn FM for me was almost self-indulgent. I knew pop would suit Abel if he did it for a whole album. He did. And I wanted to confirm my suspicions. And on that note, they were, and it does. But even if you don’t come out of Dawn FM an Abel fan, I can guarantee that you will really like songs on this album. Even if your thing isn’t listening to songs about little more than coke and pussy (two of Abel’s favourite things), and you can’t stand his voice (it’s still iffy); you will like some of the songs on this album because they are that good. Abel is better showcased here than he’s ever been, but he still has a ways to go. 

Abel, to me, has never had much to him on his previous albums. His music felt one note in a way which seems to be common with light skinned male Candadians in music. Crooning about coke, pussy and being in his feelings over some girl he fucked and promised himself he wouldn’t fall in love with was his whole personality. But Dawn FM pushes Abel’s penchant for world building, telling odd stories and affinity for playfulness and campness that After Hours highlighted. Dawn FM isn’t the career defining album that people seem to be lauding it as, at least not for me. But it gives me a far better sense of who Abel is as an artist, and that there’s potentially more to him than I thought there was - to such an extent that I will actually give a damn about whatever he releases next.

Verdict: Dr. Robotnik radio

▪ How Do I Make You Love Me?
▪ Sacrifice 🔥
▪ Out of Time 🏆 J’s Fave
▪ Is There Someone Else? 🔥
▪ Starry Eyes 🔥
▪ Don’t Break My Heart
▪ Less Than Zero