Album Review: The Weeknd, “Kiss Land”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

In 2011, the Weeknd was born in a name drop. Drake tweeted a lyric from “Wicked Games” and voila, he had arrived. Two weeks later, he’d drop his debut “House of Balloons,” an intoxicating nine-track narco haze of a mixtape, to widespread acclaim.

It was as classic a career start as any in the music industry today: Here today, a superstar tomorrow. What came after was different. While fans clambored for more about the mysterious R&B artist, the Weeknd stayed in the shadows and let his music do the talking, save for the stray tweet. By year’s end, he’d release two more mixtapes, “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence.”

Meanwhile, bit by bit, the Internet was tugging back his veil. His name was Abel Tesfaye, we learned, a 20 year-old Toronto native. An uncredited producer was apparently responsible for producing the Weeknd’s first few tracks (a claim still unsubstantiated by Tesfaye). He’s notoriously reclusive — though that wasn’t exactly news.

Now a year later, he seems poised for change. Having given his first interview just last month and prepped a second tour for the fall, Tesfaye looks ready to let the world in.

“Kiss Land” is further proof. Full of first-personal confessionals from a guy you’d want nowhere near your daughter, the album is Tesfaye’s most intimate—and alienating—to date.

Much of “Kiss Land” sounds like it’s straight from the pages of Tesfaye’s journal, and most of them are the sort of entries you’d imagine he wouldn’t want getting out. We’re privy to dark, almost predatory machinations from the start: “It’s ideal, you need someone to tell you how to feel,” Tesfaye croons over a spare rhythm in album opener “Professional.” It’s a creepy revelation from a guy who used to keep the conversation limited to the party, the afterparty and the morning after. He sounds sober and startlingly self-aware of the mind that’s reveled in the hedonism detailed in “House of Balloons.” Before you can decide if that’s a place you want to go, the song plunges you deeper down, and over an uneasy rhythm, Tesfaye aims his words at a stripper. Welcome to Kiss Land.

Most of the songs on the album detail this sort of twisted “love affair. “The Town” lionizes a hook-up who always satisfied when she was needed; “Adaptation” discusses a promising relationship set aside for the young single life; in “Belong To The World,” the object of affection is a prostitute, with whom our narrator has all the wrong things in common: “I just love that you’re dead inside / I’m not a fool / I’m just lifeless too.”

Deeply personal lines like this make for an enthralling listen — like being let in on one of Tesfaye’s therapy sessions — but they also have the inverse effect of alienating the listener. You only need go so far as hip-hop to know that success is by no means seated in relatability (Rick Ross: “I got houses, hobbies, homes in Abu Dhabi / Never go wrong, GPS in my Ferrari”), but the Weeknd’s isolating prose is the opposite of self-aggrandizing hip-hop braggadocio (though he does go there in Drake vehicle “Live For”). On titular track “Kiss Land,” Tesfaye outlines his version of “the life”: half baller (“Got a brand new place, think I’ve seen it twice all year”) and half sad-sack (“I don’t got any friends”). By the time he croons “This ain’t nothin’ to relate to” in the song’s refrain, it’s as much his admission of the album’s perceived flaw as it is a warning put to those looking to get on his level.

Sonically, the album matches the tenor of the subject matter. Jagged synths lock into mechanized drum beats to form an android’s verison of R&B, or what sounds like some realist’s vision of the future: doomed but slick. Tesfaye’s voice, however, is as brilliant as ever, and nails all the quavery, Michael Jackson-esque notes he’s known for. From the sped-up “Dirty Diana” rhythm to Tesfaye’s falsetto vocal jam at its end, “Wanderlust” sounds especially cut from the MJ cloth, and registers as single material in an otherwise atmospheric whole.

“Kiss Land” is not the Weeknd’s return to party songs; it’s a clear-eyed appraisal of an internet-supercharged two-year career. You may have met him in a molly-and-stilleto time of his life on “House of Balloon,” but these days, he’s after perspective. Perhaps it’s telling that after three mixtapes of Pantones and party scenes, there’s little artifice on the cover of “Kiss Land.” We just get Abel Tesfaye — chin defiantly up.

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