Following The Weeknd’s blockbuster album rollout for After Hours, and months of repeatedly hinting that “the dawn is coming,” his new album Dawn FM arrived exactly when he said it would on Friday (Jan. 7).
The pop auteur exclusively told Billboard in his November 2021 cover story about the running narrative behind the album: people stuck in purgatory, “which I always imagined would be like being stuck in traffic,” with a radio station playing in the car that guides them to the pearly gates. With 16 songs, The Weeknd creates his own radio station, 103.5 Dawn FM, that faithfully guides his followers to the light at the end of the tunnel and provokes reflections from the rearview mirror.
Meanwhile, he offers his own musings on the internal tug-of-war he’s dealt with — whether he’s become a better man or gone back to his hedonistic ways, and whether he believes life’s worth living or if he’s ready for his to run its course. Dawn FM provides The Weeknd an ultra-polished, sexy dancefloor escape from his past melancholy — especially that brought on by lockdown — while allowing himself forgiveness for a past he cannot change.
Even with his record-shattering Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Blinding Lights” becoming the biggest song in the chart’s history last fall, The Weeknd sets his sights higher, and inches toward something brighter on the horizon. It’s a light his day-one fans can trace from the beginning of his musical journey, starting from the dark depths of his subterranean R&B with the Trilogy mixtapes a decade ago, to the pop-leaning sensibilities of 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, to the cinematic ‘80s synth-mania of After Hours in 2020.
With the arrival of Dawn FM, The Weeknd continues traveling back in time to the post-disco era of dance-pop and boogie music. He’s brought in co-executive producers Max Martin and Oneohtrix Point Never, interspersed cheesy radio-DJ greetings from host Jim Carrey, and provided homages to the greats of that era like Prince and Michael Jackson. Dawn FM is The Weeknd’s dream sonic universe, where time is both slipping away but also can’t stop a ’90s baby from opening the floodgates of ’80s music.
Check out Billboard’s ranking of all 16 songs on Dawn FM below.
The new wave-inspired song on Dawn FM unfortunately feels discordant, with The Weeknd growling in his lower register before his usual crooning about using his lover to save him from his drug problems swoops in, an attempt to ride its glitching synth groove that sounds out of this world. His vocal range also mixes with nutty ‘80s sing-along chants, like “I’m trying not to lose my faith!” (a reference to After Hours’ “Faith”), leading some fans to believe he sounds out of his element.
15. “Dawn FM”
The Weeknd recruits actor-turned-friend Carrey to control 103.5 Dawn FM and encourage listeners to sit back, relax and embrace their fate with his silver-tongued intro in a format reminiscent of Vince Staples’ radio station takeover (hosted by L.A. radio personality Big Boy) on his 2018 album FM! The title track sets up the journey ahead, with Garden of Eden-esque euphonic synths that fizzle out into a cheesy radio station outro, but it’s not a track you’ll have on repeat. It is, however, fitting that The Weeknd fashions his latest project as such, given the history he made on terrestrial radio with “Blinding Lights”; it’s a format he naturally commands in the real world and in his own.
14. “Don’t Break My Heart”
“Don’t Break My Heart” could easily find a home in a discotheque, much like the one The Weeknd claims he almost died in on this track, with its heart-thumping bassline and fluorescent energy. But it’s riddled with too many cliché phrases, like “I don’t know if I can take it anymore,” that the song’s atmospheric production overpowers its message.
13. “Every Angel is Terrifying”
The laser-beam synth chords and haunted moans deceive listeners into thinking he’s discussing the deceptive nature of angels before “Every Angel is Terrifying” quickly morphs into an absolutely absurd ‘80s movie commercial about the “After Life.” The Weeknd told reporters earlier this week it felt “nearly impossible” to record while recording lines like “Critics say After Life makes your current life look like a total comatose snooze fest” without erupting in laughter… and same goes for his fans listening to the recording.
12. “Is There Someone Else”
The helium-pitched ad-libs and plucky electronic beats package an unconvincing fight for someone’s sole attention. The Weeknd already makes his argument that he’s the one, regardless of his dubious past, on songs like “I Heard You’re Married” and “Less Than Zero,” so “Is There Someone Else” could have been left on the cutting room floor.
11. “Starry Eyes”
On this enchanting ballad, The Weeknd manifests the girl of his dreams, and promises he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her close and loved the way she deserves to be, even if his past doesn’t back it up. The transition from the singer’s optimism to cynicism is palpable in the pensive synth cadences, which come to a razor-sharp conclusion but still leave listeners wondering if he intends to keep his promise.
10. “A Tale by Quincy” (by Quincy Jones)
This monologue over an old-school R&B acoustic beat presents a unique moment for the legendary producer to see The Weeknd for his humanity (outside of recognizing him for his humanitarianism) and relate to the romantic struggles he’s had with women himself, stemming from his own mother. It’s a staunch reminder that even the greats mess up, but “A Tale by Quincy” ultimately ends on an unresolved note with no ounce of self-reproach. And maybe that’s the point: Dawn FM functions as a guiding spirit to what comes after this life, and no one can turn back time – no matter how badly they’d want to.
9. “How Do I Make You Love Me?”
The opening lyrics “We’re going back in time” could very well act as the entire musical thesis of Dawn FM, with The Weeknd consistently nailing the period-appropriate instrumentation, but it doesn’t show out on this track as it does on others. The frenetic drum-machine pattern of “How Do I Make You Love Me?” harkens back to the late King of Pop’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and the chugging synths fire up the song’s chorus, where he begs for a woman’s love in a way that’s admittedly out of character. The bass-thumping panting flowing perfectly into “Take My Breath” is this track’s most notable quality.
8. “Take My Breath”
The lead single finds striking Giorgio Moroder-esque synth riffs gliding across a sweat-drenched dancefloor, where the singer is left speechless at the mercy of someone so exhilarating. The song’s impact on the chart, however, was less enchanting, as “Take My Breath” peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 in August and fell off the top 10 swiftly, where his previous After Hours singles had reigned for weeks on end. Regardless, the track’s hypnotizing synth patterns build up enough adrenaline to still get listeners up on their feet every time it comes on.
7. “Best Friends”
The Weeknd, OPN and DaHeala’s menacing, bass-booming production makes the classically doomed friends-with-benefits narrative that much more tempting. While he spends much of Dawn FM lamenting his lost shots at love, the heartbroken menace chooses not to mourn over this failed relationship, and instead casts blame on the woman for catching feelings in the album’s least guilty track.
6. “Phantom Regret” (with Jim Carrey)
“And dance till you find that divine boogaloo,” Carrey instructs in the final track. With Dr. Seuss-style rhyming, an almighty radio host presence and an ode to Prince, he helps guide listeners stuck in the dark onto a journey to the great light at the end of the tunnel. It’s smart, and eerily soothing, for someone many of us grew up watching in light-hearted comedy films to deliver a closing that balances innocent imagery (“Consider the flowers, they don’t try to look right. They just open their petals and turn to the light.”) with hard-learned life lessons before sending us off to the great beyond.
5. “I Heard You’re Married” (feat. Lil Wayne)
The slinky, lovelorn, Calvin Harris-co-produced earworm finds The Weeknd deceived by a woman who’s already taken and refusing to play second fiddle to her husband. Lil Wayne backs him up by rapping, “Can’t be your side bi—.” “I Heard You’re Married” sounds like the lovechild of Beauty Behind the Madness’ “Can’t Feel My Face” and Starboy’s “A Lonely Night,” with its irresistibly catchy post-disco groove and funky bass line, and with the former being his first Hot 100 chart-topping song, it’s a formula in The Weeknd’s music that proves to be successful time and time again.
In what sounds like the closest thing to a Michael Jackson record in the 21st century, “Sacrifice” resurrects the period-appropriate disco-funk off an electric guitar loop co-producers Swedish House Mafia showed The Weeknd, he revealed in a Zoom press call this week. The Scarborough, Canada native blames his hometown for his frigidity and relishes in his selfish desires, putting himself ahead of a woman who loves him and pushing himself past his contemporaries to come out as one of the top pop stars of his generation.
3. “Here We Go… Again” (feat. Tyler, the Creator)
The Weeknd relishes in his victory lap last year, including celebrations for his recent Billboard covers and Super Bowl Halftime Show performance, but gets stopped in his tracks once more by the trappings of fame and sex on “Here We Go… Again.” He’s spellbound by love, with The Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston and Christian Love’s background “Oohs” and twinkling organ-like keys capturing that fuzzy feeling; Tyler cautions that outside forces can’t stop love, but raps “you gon’ sign this prenup” to protect what belongs to him. Both superstars’ choice to succumb to the power of love and ride the emotional roller coaster again exudes the spot-on kitschiness of ‘80s love songs.
2. “Out of Time”
The super-sleek, Off-The-Wall-esque boogie ballad is the perfect follow-up to “A Tale by Quincy,” where The Weeknd looks in hindsight how his own trauma impacted his romantic relationships and it’s too late to fix them. The swirling flute and shimmering production feels like he’s in a fairytale where he can turn back time with just the snap of his fingers, but Carrey snaps him back to his grim reality with his fuzzy, austere announcer voice, and promises, “Soon you’ll be healed, forgiven and refreshed” on the other side.
1. “Less Than Zero”
The blissfully sun-soaked, gut-wrenching heartbreak melodies and a synth stairway to heaven on “Less Than Zero” make Dawn FM’s penultimate track the most surefire hit. The Weeknd has sung about relationships he’s ruined with his nihilistic habits enough times in his discography (and on this album), but lyrics like “Now you’d rather leave me than to watch me die in your arms” pull on your heartstrings enough to feel sympathy for him. And for an album presented as a radio station, “Less Than Zero” sounds like it could reach the same top 40 success as it After Hours predecessors.