The most surprising name hidden in the liner notes of the Weeknd’s fourth studio album, After Hours, is Mario Winans. Best known for his 2004 classic “I Don’t Wanna Know,” Winans has since has written and produced on hits like CeCe Winans’s “Pray” and Kanye West’s “All Day,” but in recent years has settled into a behind-the-scenes role. It’s easy to see, within the bleak futurism of the Weeknd’s latest release, flashes of the classic R&B turns that WInans is known for — and nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s title track.
Over the phone, Winans is in high spirits, despite the COVID-19 chaos raging outside. “My family, we are definitely quarantined in the house,” he says. “Keeping our immune systems up. Staying hydrated.” Earlier in the day, the early-aughts Bad Boy artist was on a video conference with MTV discussing the reboot of Diddy’s Making The Band, on which he will be a producer and vocal coach. But it’s the Weeknd he is most excited about — hyperbolically so — saying,= “It’s one of the greatest albums I’ve heard of all time.”
When the Weeknd was still Abel Tesfaye, Winans was working with the Toronto rapper Belly — who would later sign to the Weeknd’s XO Records years later. “Back in 2007, I did a record called ‘Ridin’ with Belly that I was featured on the hook,” Winans begins. “That’s how I first met those guys. We remained friends for years. Then I met The Weeknd. They called me and said, ‘Listen, I’m tapping into your sounds on some of these records and I want you to come in and work with us on some of these songs.'”
“After Hours,” the album’s penultimate track, is a grandiose, six-minute, foreboding fever dream. The production starts, stops, and drops out at a moment’s notice. The Weeknd’s reverb-soaked voice soars and warbles, over an adrenaline-fueled drum pattern and anxiety-inducing synths. “It’s very focused, laser-focused,” Winans says of the song writing process and work ethic (The Weeknd, Belly, DaHeala, and Illangelo are all also credited on the song).
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“They had the skeleton of the song and I just came in and played some different chords. We messed around with some chord structures and changing stuff for the bridge,” he continues. “It was instant connection as far as creativity, because those guys are tremendously talented. I was just glad to add my input to it.”
When asked if he’d seen and liked Uncut Gems — the critically acclaimed, Safdie Brothers-directed movie, which stars the Weeknd as a younger version of the Weeknd — Winans pauses. “It was an interesting movie,” he says. “Sometimes I like to watch a movie more than once, because I see different things and get different things from it. So I’m going to watch it again. I definitely enjoyed it.”
Winans calls his early hits “blessings,” recounting how he was just in London and Paris at the beginning of 2020, performing them over 15 years later. In addition to Making The Band, Winans is working on a collaboration and production album. “A lot of people are not too familiar with all of the songs that I produced, and how much work that I put into the game before my song ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ came out,” he says. When it comes to the current R&B landscape he’s not worried, counting Summer Walker and Khalid among the artists he now listens to.
“I think there’s still a space for there to be more great R&B artists and music out there,” Winans says. “It’s not lost, I can tell you that much.”