As some of his major contemporaries were busy topping the charts, winning Grammys, and scooping up high-profile collaborations, The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye demonstrated a calculated patience following the release of his standout mixtape trilogy in 2011. But was his major-label debut, Kiss Land, worth the wait?
1. Picking up where we left off
If there was concern that Tesfaye’s druggy, R-rated stylings wouldn’t cross over well to a major-label situation, Kiss Land asserts itself as a Weeknd album, through and through. For all the early reaction quibbles about a perceived desertion of his early sound, Kiss Land is in many ways a logical continuation from Echoes of Silence – from the Michael Jackson-inspired vocal performances to the tight songcraft and character-driven lyrics.
2. Fit for the big screen
With that said, there’s no doubt that Tesfaye and principal co-producers DannyBoyStyles and Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville are going bigger on Kiss Land. In addition to stop-you-in-your-tracks choruses on songs like “Adaptation” and “Belong To The World,” there’s a cinematic tension to the proceedings, and Tesfaye and co. outfit the entire thing with a horror veneer (the album was partly inspired by filmmakers such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg). The Weeknd’s sonic architecture remains rooted in the same winning dynamic: contrasting dark, heavy sounds (zombie-lurching synths on “The Town,” ghoulish background vocals, Portishead drums on “Belong To The World”) with lighter, sweeter ones (slow guitar plucks, fluttering wind chimes, and Tesfaye’s own deceivingly tender vocals).
3. That OVO and that XO
Aside from the now-squashed rumors of a rift between fellow Toronto #sadboys Drake and The Weeknd, the cross-influence between the two artists has always been evident, and it pops up again on Kiss Land (though oddly their only true collaboration here, “Live For,” feels tacked on). The central tension at the core of the album: the fear of losing love in the chase for fame. Sound familiar?
There are times on Kiss Land where it trips up Tesfaye, a writer already somewhat prone to melodrama. “I’m not a fool / I just love that you’re dead inside,” goes one pained lyric. On “Love In The Sky,” a less-than-subtle thunderstorm beckons in the background. The emotional climax, “Tears In The Rain,” prominently features the line: “It’s pointless / like tears in the rain.”
Not to say that he’s completely lost his biting, devilish charm. The Weeknd remains an ace with the veiled gesture, assuring the object of his affection – a nameless figure even more damaged than he is – that she’s the only one who can make him smile, only to coyly suggest that she’s probably not good enough for the man she actually wants to be with, in the same breath.
4. That’s four “albums” in three years…we can divide
Perhaps because they were released in such quick succession, The Weeknd didn’t quite get enough credit for the scope of his three introductory mixtapes. At the same time, he may well have stretched himself a bit thin in the process of recording those projects. As cohesive as Kiss Land is, it’s arguably his least adventurous record to date. The one real outlier in that respect – the uncharacteristically rhythmic “Wanderlust” (think MJ on molly) – makes for a bit of an awkward fit.
5. Kiss Land: The Prequel?
Though Kiss Land seems to be set mostly in the real time it took Tesfaye to record the album, it works just as well as a prequel of sorts. By the time the album comes to a close with the sweeping vocal showcase “Pretty,” and the somber, guilt-laden “Tears In The Rain,” The Weeknd has dragged the only genuine thing going for him into an emotionless chasm. He concedes he should have known better, but it’s a bit of too-little-too-late empathy. The two protagonists at the heart of Kiss Land come out the worse for wear, as fucked up as ever. If we didn’t know any better, you might think of it as a set-up for the numb hedonist who shows up on House of Balloons.
Label: Republic, XO | Producers: Brandon “Bizzy” Hollemon, DannyBoyStyles, Harry Fraud, Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville, Silkky Johnson, The Weeknd