After having gone through the PBR&B rabbit hole, and after many rotations of the mixtapes House of Balloons and Echoes of Silence, we have come to a point at which we know what to expect from the Canadian producer and singer Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. His feelings seep through every word and coo, often reverberated heavily with tinges of extreme sadness. “Wicked Games,” in particular, became a YouTube sensation, hitting over 25,000,000 views and becoming the quintessential Weeknd song, complete with an eerie, hypnotic beat, heavily altered drum patterns and vibrato vocals full of fear, detachment and a longing for companionship. Since 2010, when Tesfaye began releasing songs to the Internet under his current pseudonym, he has become buddy-buddy with Drake and gotten signed to Universal Republic Records and, finally, released his first studio album.
Kiss Land fits the familiar archetype, while stretching out just a bit farther than anything previous. It should be noted here that Tesfaye decided to depart from Illangelo, his collaborative producer and the man responsible for each of The Weeknd’s first three outings, for Kiss Land, yet Tesfaye retains a lot of the sentimentality which made his work so creepily infectious regardless. The Weeknd is quickly establishing a following as a sexually-unambiguous Frank Ocean Lite, and the talk surrounding this outing is more akin to Channel: ORANGE than to Thursday, although still not quite at that scale. With the opening synth strings of “Professional,” The Weeknd makes a programmatic statement, perhaps about himself and the music he makes: “It’s ideal/You need someone to tell you how to feel.” Later in the same verse, he gives what may be a musing on his relative stardom in the context of Top 40 vanilla pop: “So you’re somebody now/But what’s a somebody in a nobody town/I don’t think you even know it.” The slow, pounding drums make way for the wide open spaces during which Tesfaye puts his immense vocal abilities on display, as happens so often throughout the album and throughout his catalog in general.
“The Town” features an extended introduction of echoed vocals describing the grandiose images of failed excess, that which has vaulted The Weeknd to the forefront of flawed fame imagery, no matter how true or not his words may be. The 80s synth loops and ridiculously processed guitars nod to Genesis, while Tesfaye’s falsetto calls to mind a Bad-era Michael Jackson. In “Adaptation,” Tesfaye sings to his usual target, an unnamed female who, like him, seems to be on a prolonged, agonizing journey for love. The Weeknd’s thematic agenda seems to center around trading long-term happiness for instant gratification, a particularly unsettling and realistic concern (or goal, depending on who you ask) for millennials and the college crowd to whom he caters. The final repeated phrase, however, hints at the possibility of something better: “She just might be the one.”
“Adaptation” blends directly into the next track, “Love In The Sky,” which is even more revealing and may be the most personal piece on Kiss Land. The Weeknd feigns comfort and relaxation before disclosing that, “I’m always getting high/’cause my confidence low.” His peaks of confidence and regressions into desperate anxiety can happen in the course of one or two lines, but the tone never changes due largely to the weighty production and Tesfaye’s reeling, whistling pangs of remorse. By the end of “Adaptation,” Tesfaye feels he is firmly “in control,” despite his admitted shortcomings.
“Adaptation” fades to rain, and “Belong To The World” begins with a rumble of thunder before the sound of birds chirping and a heavy trap backbeat. Almost surprisingly, the quick drum patterns and flash turnarounds provide the backdrop to one of the more upbeat-sounding songs on the album. The synth string section on the pre-chorus is magnificent, almost divine in nature, and it invites the listener out of darkness and onto a bluesy rainbow with one of the strangest acceptances you will ever hear: “I’m not a fool/I just love how you’re dead inside/I’m not a fool/I’m just lifeless too.” It almost makes you happy that The Weeknd has finally found someone with whom he can be gloomy and/or effortlessly nonchalant about romance.
What follows will surely become the big deal and/or most remembered song from Kiss Land, at least for the foreseeable future. “Live For,” presumably so named because the extended phrase of the chorus, “This the shit that I live for,” failed to pass the muster with Universal. It is undeniably catchy, and the whispers of traditional Asian acoustic melodies in the hook give Drake the perfect platform for a verse, during which he includes a Demi Moore reference and rhymes “for” with “for” on two separate occasions. Regardless, it sounds like something that might be coming to a P-P-P-POWER 98-type radio station near you very soon.
“Wanderlust” marries a New Order-style bassline with stoney-disco drums and spacey breaks reminiscent of the darkest, worst apartment parties you ever attended. I can almost feel my feet sticking to the damp floor with each bass drum stomp. The chorus arches high and rolls back down swiftly and succinctly, with infinite passion and the continued thoughts of saving tonight while forgetting about tomorrow. The first half of the album’s titular track carries much more like a typical contemporary hip-hop cut than any other. It sounds a bit like a Drake R&B track, without the computer vocals overriding everything else. It then takes a turn for the weird, familiar territory which at this point should not come as any surprise. Negative space abounds, and Tesfaye takes a possible misstep in muting himself rather than launching over the top.
“Pretty” contains a haunting, repeated guitar line not entirely unlike “How Soon Is Now?” The pounding rhythm is juxtaposed against Tesfaye expressions of hope in the face of high expectation. The penultimate track puts The Weeknd’s full abilities on display, and he puts the entire track on his back before yielding to screeching feedback and some more strangely sampled vocals. “Tears In The Rain” acts as the final page of another Weeknd chapter, complete with everything we expected as well as particularly striking vocal improvisation over lines of yet another love wasted to the dangers of impurity.
It could be that he felt challenged by YEEZUS and the other mega-hype albums of recent memory (see again: Ocean, Frank), and he has responded with output that will surely earn the respect of those listening closely enough to hear it. Some may gloss over Kiss Land as another overly melodramatic, introverted display of weakness and posturing, but they are missing the progression of a very promising act. This album is doused in electronic modifications and processed instruments, continuing a wave of almost unreal-yet-emotional music. Make no mistake, however: at least some of the next generation, which will be born into high technology, will be born as a direct result of Abel Tesfaye, who is solidifying his entry as this generation’s Rev. Al Green, at least thematically. These songs sound like The Weeknd, but maybe they are starting to sound more like The Weeknd than that to which we have grown accustomed. And that’s a good thing, ultimately. It is not often, especially in this millennium, to catch a pop artist whose sound is so unique that you know immediately who it is. The Weeknd is one of a handful of these artists right now, and he is starting to fully come into his own on Kiss Land.