“I just want to be a filmmaker,” Abel Tesfaye told Rolling Stone in 2020, months after he made his big-screen debut in Uncut Gems. “I want to make great cinema.” With his latest album, Dawn FM, he’s channeled his passion for film into one of his most theatrical work yet. His fifth studio LP enlists a prime cast of singular rappers (Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator), distinctive producers (Max Martin and Oneohtrix Point Never), and high-wattage friends (Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones) to spin a rousing drama of death and love. The Weeknd even calls upon Josh Safdie, the writer and co-director of Uncut Gems, to be a part of his world. Here are five key takeaways from our first listens to Dawn FM.
Dawn FM is the Last Station You’ll Ever Hear
While Jim Carrey and the Weeknd initially bonded over the majesty of telescopes, on the singer’s new album, they connect under more morbid circumstances. From his interludes, it’s clear that Carrey functions as Dawn FM’s DJ, walking his listeners into the bright light of the afterlife. “We’ll be there to hold your hand and guide you through this painless transition,” Carrey says both comfortingly and ominously on the first track (which was partially teased in the album’s trailer, shared on Jan. 3). In turn, Dawn FM is rife with deathly imagery and allegories. Even the album’s main character, featured on its cover — the Weeknd in prosthetics that age him dramatically — points to a life meeting its end.
The Weeknd Really Sticks to His Script Here
From song to song, the ideas and soundscapes on Dawn FM are tightly connected. “Take My Breath,” where the Weeknd sings “You’re offering yourself to me like sacrifice/You said you do this all the time/Tell me you love me if I bring you to the light” is followed by a song called “Sacrifice.” An interlude from legendary record producer Quincy Jones, in which he describes the impact of familial trauma on his romantic relationships, is followed by “Out of Time,” where the Weeknd sings about pushing away a lover after trauma in his life as well. The production of the interlude and the song meld seamlessly into each other. Segues like this happen lyrically or sonically between almost every track.
Speaking of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson’s Influence Looms Heavily
While the Weeknd is a known subject of the King of Pop, his influence here may be more palpable here than over any of the Weeknd’s previous work (save for his 2011 rendition of “Dirty Diana”). You can hear remnants of Vincent Price’s spooky “Thriller” speech in Carrey’s closing poem on Dawn FM. Before that, “Sacrifice” especially leans into Jackson-style vocal melodies, and its guitar riffs sound like the ones from “Wanna Be Starting Something” and “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” The album’s continuity shows up again here, too — the next track after “Sacrifice” is the interlude from Quincy Jones, famed MJ collaborator.
The Weeknd Made Sure to Honor Prince, Too
Echoes of Prince can especially be found in “I Heard You’re Married,” with its smooth groove and splashy percussion, but there’s a more explicit reference to the Purple One in Carrey’s “Phantom Regret”: “When the purple rain falls, we’re all bathed in its grace,” the actor says. The Weeknd has never been shy about his love of Prince and the ways he’s been inspired by him before. He and Prince had plans to work together at Paisley Park before Prince died in April 2016. When Prince made his last TV appearance in November 2015, he was presenting the Weeknd with an American Music Award.
Who but the Weeknd Could Get These Producers To Work Together?
Once upon a time, the Weeknd was iffy about working with Max Martin — or anyone outside his inner circle. But the Swedish maestro helped the Weeknd cross over to peak pop stardom in 2015, and he’s gone on to produce songs on each Weeknd album since then. Martin’s greatest input to date comes on Dawn FM, where he contributes to 15 out of the album’s 16 tracks. The credits also reveal contributions from experienced pop pros like TBHits, who has lots of previous credits with Ariana Grande, including much of her albums Positions and Thank U, Next; Calvin Harris, who gets a co-production line on “I Heard You’re Married”; and frequent Martin collaborator Oscar Holter, who co-produced the After Hours hits “Blinding Lights,” “Hardest to Love,” and “Save Your Tears,” and shows up on 12 of 16 tracks here.
More surprising is the heavy presence of electronic auteur Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, who’s credited on all but three of Dawn FM‘s tracks. He and Tesfaye got to know each other through Uncut Gems, and Lopatin went on to contribute to a couple of After Hours tracks and the Weeknd’s 2021 Super Bowl halftime show. The choice to pair the experimental composer who made 2015’s Garden of Delete with the Top 40 wizards behind some of the biggest hits of the past 25 years crystallizes Tesfaye’s dual ambitions to entertain audiences and challenge them, too.