The Weeknd takes listeners on a journey to the golden era of music with Dawn FM, his fifth studio album and the worthy follow-up to his smash After Hours. With guest verses from artists like Tyler, The Creator and Lil Wayne, production from superstars like Max Martin and Oscar Holter, and spoken interludes by Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones, there’s no shortage of buzz-worthy moments on the record. And perhaps the most buzz comes from the album’s theme: a radio station dedicated to taking listeners on a trip they won’t forget, all while tackling difficult subjects with the sleek grace that has become a Weeknd signature.
The album addresses troubling topics like trauma, regret, and death under the guise of a radio station, letting the lyrics get heavy before picking up the mood with a radio bumper or 80s-esque jingle. While Dawn FM would be an incredible record even without the radio theme, it’s what makes it go from an amazing project to a legendary one. Throughout the album, The Weeknd sticks to the motif while also sticking to his truth as an artist, showing off his versatility and standout creative vision like never before.
For hardcore fans of The Weeknd, the radio experience not only started with Jim Carrey’s “Dawn FM” intro that promises an hour of “commercial-free yourself music,” but with the album drop itself. Tesfaye teamed up with Amazon Music for a premiere livestream on Twitch, with him playing the album in a DJ booth as a group of fans excitedly listened in an enclosed area covered in curtains. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide tuned in for an event that brought the album’s concept to life.
Everyone knows the anticipation that comes when you hear the intro to your favorite song on the radio while the show host is still talking, and The Weeknd brought even that to Dawn FM with the extended version of “Take My Breath,” without the irrelevant jockey commentary. Clocking in at two minutes longer than the original song, this longer rendition of “Take My Breath” lets listeners get into the mood of the 80s pop-infused track before Tesfaye even opens his mouth.
Capping off the future pop classic “Sacrifice” is a spoken interlude by Quincy Jones, noted for his production for artists like Michael Jackson and Lesley Gore. “A Tale by Quincy” describes how Jones’ cold upbringing affected his future relationships and his worries about parenting his own children. It gives the same feeling as a radio jockey sharing a personal story between songs, and story-wise, it reflects The Weeknd’s own troubles with romance after being scorned in his early relationships.
After “A Tale by Quincy,” Dawn FM goes existential with an eerie outro from Jim Carrey on “Out of Time.” He promises 30 more minutes of music and insists that “there’s still more music to come before you’re completely engulfed in the blissful embrace of that little light you see in the distance,” suggesting that the album represents the travel from life to death. It’s similar to how radio is typically seen as just something to soundtrack a car ride, allowing the meaning behind upbeat songs to get hidden behind their cheerful sound like many tracks on Dawn FM.
Both “Here We Go… Again” and “Best Friends” end with The Weeknd reciting a radio bumper, plugging “the number one station to free your soul, Dawn 103.5.” The only time before these tracks that he mentions the radio station himself is on the album intro, “Dawn FM.” It marks a turning point on the record as the narrator seemingly approaches death and gives into what’s happening – while his body is giving into death, the radio-entranced version of The Weeknd is giving into the commercialism of the station.
“Is There Someone Else?” and “Starry Eyes” both describe difficult relationships, addressing infidelity, trauma, and self-deprecation before transitioning into “Every Angel Is Terrifying,” an interlude that goes from incorporating a Rainer Maria Rilke poem about angels to a typical radio commercial promoting the afterlife for “$4.95 plus $3.79 shipping and handling.” It’s here where the album’s purpose truly becomes clear: it’s a transition from the gruesome life of After Hours’ narrator to the heaven or hell of his next album, creating a trilogy of records that explore humanity, regret, and how your choices impact your future.
Just how “Out of Time” went from existential to promotional in the blink of an eye, the record’s final track, “Phantom Regret by Jim” quickly turns from another radio bumper to a sermon on how to truly live as a fully realized person. “Heaven’s for those who let go of regret,” Jim Carrey insists at the tail-end of a project all about a man looking back on his life and addressing his rights and wrongs.
Where Dawn FM shines is not only its thoughtful lyrics and reflective tone, but also its commitment to delivering substantial content through a medium that isn’t always viewed as substantial. Both pop music and the hits on the radio are often shunned as shallow and repetitive, and as The Weeknd has transitioned from making dark R&B to becoming one of the biggest 21st-century popstars, he has of course faced that criticism from older fans who want him to return to his moody sound. Dawn FM is a celebration of growth and change, looking back on the ups and downs of life while sonically looking back on 80s synth and the golden era of radio.