The Weeknd, ‘Kiss Land’ – Album Review
If you’ve been following the Weeknd closely, 2011 feels like a long, long time ago. Toronto-based singer Abel Tesfaye released three free mixtapes to the Internet, seemingly out of nowhere, between March and December of that year, remaining anonymous all the while -- a smoke-cloud ghost haunting the hedonistic nightmares outlined in his music. In hindsight, it still seems brilliant: letting the music speak for itself and the artist, and letting the legend grow organically without any PR intervention. But even by the time the third mixtape, ‘Echoes of Silence,’ dropped online in December, it was obvious the self-contained universe the Weekend had built wouldn’t last.
In 2012, Tesfaye took his first steps out of the shadows. With his crowdsourced band in tow, he embarked on a tour, initially faltering in translating his sound to a live setting. The inevitable major label deal followed, and the Weeknd signed to Republic in order to release his three mixtapes officially as a single package titled ‘Trilogy’ and make a bid for the stardom his music had made clear he so craved. Unfortunately, ‘Trilogy,’ packaged with three excellent new tracks, had been stripped of the mixtapes’ lighting-in-a-bottle magic, not to mention a few key samples the label was unable to clear. And Tesfaye still hasn't really claimed a spot alongside contemporaries like frequent collaborator Drake.
Which brings us to the Weeknd’s proper major label debut, the gaudily titled ‘Kiss Land.’ With the mystique of the early material seemingly yanked away (‘Kiss Land’’s haphazard, Photoshop-lite cover art is an unambiguous Instagram-esque photo of Tesfaye), all that’s left is the music. But it’d be superficial at best to blame ‘Kiss Land’’s problems on a lack of mystery. And ‘House of Balloons’ is still every bit as magnificent as it was in 2011. Things have certainly changed for The Weeknd on ‘Kiss Land,’ and unfortunately it goes beyond surface-level myth-making.
The Weeknd has an aesthetic -- one that’s proved highly influential to both electronic music and R&B. Morally ambiguous lyrics, a Michael Jackson-esque tenor and endlessly gooey vocal hooks were only half of what made the Weeknd so impactful. The mixtapes featured some of the most meticulous, forward-thinking left-field production ever paired with R&B vocals. A lot of that ingenuity can be attributed to two producers who helped shape the Weeknd’s sound: Illangelo and Doc McKinney. It should speak volumes that neither of those names appear on ‘Kiss Land.’
Even at its best, ‘Kiss Land’ feels like a distant, opaque reflection of the Weeknd’s mixtapes. The Weeknd aesthetic remains intact, but solely on the surface. ‘Kiss Land’ is full of dark, nighttime synths; slinky rhythms; and experimental flourishes, but it has none of the depth, clarity and rawness of the earlier material. ‘Kiss Land’ is an easy-enough listen, and it may be sufficient for those simply looking for Tesfaye’s voice layered over some smoggy, melodic backdrops, but there’s nothing here to get fearfully lost in and consumed by, like on ‘House of Balloons.’
The album starts promisingly enough, as ‘Professional' opens with a shimmering plateau of orchestral synths, Tesfaye’s voice rising to a crescendo before the song shifts into gear with a jagged rhythm. There are other highlights as well. ‘Belong to the World’ turns Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’ into a glacial pop song with a tearful outro. ‘Wanderlust’ is a back-alley dance-floor burner with perhaps the album’s strongest chorus. And closer ‘Tears In the Rain’ is seven minutes of gorgeous dystopic deterioration.
But elsewhere there are featureless chunks of ‘Kiss Land’ that pass by unnoticed. It can’t be said that Tesfaye himself doesn’t do his damndest to make these tracks stick. The young singer is in top form, and some of the vocal hooks on the aforementioned tracks are as strong as ever, but the interplay between vocals, songwriting, and production just isn’t there. In fact, at times, they get in the way of each other, often devolving into confused, muddled emoting. And without the emotional acuity of earlier material, Tesfaye’s hedonistic narratives, once tortured and revealing, are rote, ineffectual and entirely uninteresting.
‘Kiss Land’ is a step backward for the Weeknd, but it’s not a complete failure. There’s an argument to be made that the quality and success of the Weeknd’s 2011 mixtapes are too tied to time and place for the project to ever reach those heights again. But despite a few glaring, misguided decisions, ‘Kiss Land’ makes it clear the singer's success isn’t a fluke by any means. Perhaps the Weeknd’s only path forward is to reinvent himself. In any case, ‘Kiss Land,’ technically the Weeknd’s debut (or fourth release, depending how you look at it), falls victim to the sophomore slump.