Producer Mike Dean Continues His Wild Friendship With the Weeknd on His Own ‘4:23’: Album Review
Famous since the top of the 1990s for bold, old-school, synth-rich productions of hardcore rappers (Scarface), multi-hyphenate hip-hop magnates (Kanye West, Travis Scott) and symphonically scored R&B vocalists (Beyoncé, the Weeknd), Mike Dean always sounds as if he’s having the most fun on his chill solo excursions. Take the surprise drop this past weekend of “4:23,” another of Dean’s schmoked-up stoner efforts that, like 2020’s buoyant instrumental album “4:20,” is equal parts steely sci-fi epic soundtrack and spaced-out dream-pop.
“4:23” is occasionally reminiscent of Dean’s home-recorded, souped-up synth-works, full of proggy impromptu noodling carved from larger ice block suites. But this new album mostly features tracks more succinct and cutting — actual songs. For such freshly anointed precision, we can likely credit Dean’s steadfast collaborator, tour partner and streaming network co-star, the Weeknd, who takes on a role here as the executive producer of “4:23.”
Inside of each other’s business since 2015’s odd-time-signature-filled “Beauty Behind the Madness,” Dean and the Weeknd have matured together through several eerily romantic creations, the latest of which was 2022’s “Dawn FM.” Along with the pair’s collaboration with Future on the testy new track “Double Fantasy,” Dean is also the Weeknd’s screen co-star on “The Idol,” the upcoming HBO series co-created with showrunner Sam Levinson, of “Euphoria” fame.
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The Weeknd’s idea of alluring avant-garde pop-soul has rubbed off on Dean on the four “4:23” tracks on which they share writing credits. They toy with the metaphors of what “fake news” could mean within the house of love in “Artificial Intelligence” (co-co-produced by director-writer Levinson), a track that allows the Weeknd to bellow lovesick lines like “Your heart is in another place, how do I even compete / Emotionless, I’m at war with false intelligence.” Several songs later, Dean and the Weeknd take that dusty theme of lonely stoicism and turn “Emotionless” into a swelling ambient prayer.
Not everything that the pair do on “4:23” is a lovelorn desert’s daydream. The throb-and-kick of “Defame Moi” gives the psychically wounded vocalist yet another shot at ranting about the truth. “They’re demonizing my name, demonizing me,” he whispers, paranoically. “I believe their lies. They believe their lies.” On “More Coke!!,” things get doubly nightmarish as the Weeknd’s FX-processed vocals ominously repeat the words “The cocaine fluctuates my weight” and “Scarface, Scarface, Scarface” as if stuck in a bad mantra.
Whether it’s the side effects of the weed or the cocaine, “4:23” is the (willingly thrilling) bummer of the summer on the Weeknd’s side of the ledger. Downer lyrics such as his make it sound as if no one had a necessarily great drug experience this time out … or at least not as pleasant a buzz as the young Dean surely had back when he was posintg for the new album’s cover photo, as a youthful mullet-wearer no one would have pegged in the yearbook as most likely to become a synth-hop icon.
In contrast, even at their arpeggiated spookiest, Dean’s melodies on cool songs such as “Music for the Future,” “Goodbye Earth” and “Hello Space” (all of which could easily appear on the soundtrack of “Stranger Things”) lift and drift gleefully upwards. The cluster of backwards guitars and throbbing sequencers that clutter “Rewind Life” into dense display open up to a soaring (and uncredited) saxophone solo and change the trajectory of the track. Whether it’s the Weekend’s executive directive or Dean’s maturation, the instrumental cuts on “4:23” are as lyrical as its vocal-filled numbers.
Unlike the producer’s other solo efforts, “4:23” sounds and feels like an entire work with a syncopated, sonic throughline. By this new album’s end, though the instrumentalist benefits from the craft and shaping skills of the Weeknd, his singing friend’s warily forlorn lyrical display is no match for the epiphany of melody and the focused arrangement of chilled synths that Mike Dean solidly makes his own. Or that mullet.
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