The Weeknd’s ‘Kiss Land’: Album Review

Bianca Gracie | September 10, 2013 5:30 am
A few years ago, R&B took an interesting turn as young artists dabbled in a new, darker sub-genre called “PBR&B” (see SPIN‘s article for a thorough breakdown). The genre-bending roster included Drake, Frank Ocean, Solange, Miguel and Janelle Monae. And then there’s The Weeknd, the twisted brother to Frank Ocean’s lighter sonic fare. The Toronto-bred singer raised eyebrows (and caused a few dropped panties) in March 2011 with the first of his mixtape trilogy, House Of Balloons. With songs like “High For This” and “Wicked Games,” the singer, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, used his depressive music as a mask to whisper taboo subjects like drug abuse, prostitution and dangerous partying into the listener’s ear. Three mixtapes and a compilation album later, The Weeknd reveals himself on his proper debut release, Kiss Land (out today, ).

While his mixtapes displayed the singer as emotionless and cold, Kiss Land shows a softer, warmer side of the once-mysterious crooner who now isn’t afraid to wear his feelings on his sleeve as well as his album artwork, showing a more confident Tesfaye looking directly into the camera lens. The themes on the album are derivative of his mixtapes, but the singer lyrically cuts even deeper as he struggles with his new-found fame.

With Michael Jackson‘s Bad and Dangerous influences as well as inspiration from filmmakers like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott, The Weeknd challenges your sexual limitations both sonically and lyrically. But you should have already expected that if you paid attention to the record’s Hentai-inspired promotion, which was plastered with Japanese symbols and characters (not to mention the after-dark commercial featuring a Lolita-esque Japanese girl promising you “happy times” if you give the artist a call). Overall, Kiss Land‘s 2-in-1 songs create a sonic journey — but not in the exuberant 20/20 Experience way. It is more self-deprecating, jarring and mentally noxious.

The album opens up with “Professional,” a dark love song for a call girl. Tesfaye’s vocals are finally on the forefront, rather than being hidden behind smoky basslines. Just three minutes into listening, the song’s recurring lyric sums the entire album: “So you’re somebody now / but what’s a somebody in a nobody town?”

In his first-ever interview of his career, The Weeknd said he wanted to capture fear in the album: “I don’t know who I am right now and I’m doing all these outlandish things in these settings that I’m not familiar with. To me, it’s the most terrifying thing ever. So when you hear the screams in the record and you hear all these horror references and you feel scared, listen to the music because I want you to feel what I’m feeling. Kiss Land is like a horror movie.”

This inspiration is is clearly felt throughout the album, including the sparse “The Town.” With its menacing drum beats that highlights Tesfaye’s gloomy falsettos, it sounds like a bonus track from Michael Jackson’s 1988 film Moonwalker. It shows a different side to the Lothario, who yearns for a lost lover: “You made me feel so good before I left on the road / and you deserve your name on a crown, on a throne.”

The opposite theme is found on “Love In The Sky”, which takes more of a minimal sonic approach — but don’t be so quick to think it skips on the erotica. One of my favorites on the record, “Love In The Sky” is sexual tension at its highest peak. With it’s explicit lyrics (“But I’m always getting high ’cause my confidence low / and I’m always in a rush / ain’t no time to fuck slow”), one can’t help but to feel transported to a seedy 1976 porn theater.

The momentous “Belong To The World” has a schizophrenic production that sounds like a broken television buzzing in the background. The chilling, apocalyptic song got a spike in controversy due to its Portishead sample — which makes it all the more wicked. But Kiss Land doesn’t come without its musical flaws. Nowadays it seems like every R&B and hip hop album has a signature club anthem, and “Live For” is The Weeknd’s lackluster attempt. Featuring fellow Toronto native Drake (which puts all that supposed beef heard in “5 a.m. in Toronto” to rest), the song is quite generic due to its predictable, squeaky hook: “This the shit that I live for, with the people I die for.” It cannot compare to the the duo’s masterful “The Zone” or even the blander “Crew Love.”

Michael Jackson is an obvious influence in The Weeknd’s sound (see his Echoes of Silence “Dirty Diana” cover) and it is best heard on the record’s most unexpected song, “Wanderlust.” It is a post-disco, ’80s-inspired song made for the dance floor — think Thriller‘s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” covered in a shadowy veil. Another favorite is the title track, “Kiss Land,” a misogynistic trip that’s a tad disturbing (I blame the looped sample of a female screaming). The track is continuation of  Echoes of Silence‘s “Initiation,” thanks to the psychotropic production and its raw Clockwork Orange type of hyper-sexuality.

While seamless and more expansive, Kiss Land is missing some of the gritty, rough around the edges sounds of yore. I would not be surprised if he had to tone some of it down to please his label (he’s signed to Republic Records) now that mainstream eyes are watching. But being a longtime fan of the singer, he most likely doesn’t give a fuck about breaking into the Top 40 as long as his fans are still rocking with him.

With this debut effort, The Weeknd sought out exactly what he wanted: a cinematic, debaucherous concept album. It is an auditory guilt trip, teetering the line between a complete illusion of what’s reality and what’s Tesafye’s sick fantasy. Whether he’s The Weeknd or just Abel, he is of the few artists who forces you to look in the mirror just long enough to feel sorry for yourself until the record cuts off.

The Best Song That Wasn’t The Single: “Wanderlust” proves The Weeknd isn’t all just foggy lo-fi ballads. The groovy midtempo will shut his naysayers up who complain that he cannot make a song that strays away from his depressive comfort zone.

Best Listened To: In a dingy, dimly-lit motel room in Nowhereland, Europe while smoking a cigarette next to your sometimes-fling, with a bottle of half-finished Hennessy on the nightstand.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Bianca Gracie