- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
When the Weeknd debuted with the mysterious March 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, Toronto was in the midst of a cold-ass winter; unlike Montrealers, we can't handle winter's deep-freeze here, so that chill extended to the near-dead party scene as well. And then along came this sleazy, navel-gazing, zeitgeist-shirking pop record from a shadowy local singer who could uncannily conjure that wispy, silk-strong Michael Jackson tremor. In just nine songs, he fully documented molly highs and molly lows, borrowing aesthetically from rap depravity, tongue-wagging R&B, and spaced-out beatmakers and chillwavers. The result was pieced together by former Esthero producer/songwriter Doc McKinney and boosted by Drake. The psychic mood of the city changed, but the impact of Balloons was global. Like Frank Ocean had done just a month or so earlier, Abel Tesfaye created a seismic shift.
We didn't know his name at first: Initially anonymous, Tesfaye acted out a high-drama reveal at a Toronto club later that summer, one week before performing for thousands at OVO Fest. Meanwhile, he fleshed out his mixtape trilogy — Thursday followed in August '11; Echoes of Silence a few days before Christmas — "officially" released as a three-disc box set the following year. He subsequently toured Europe and North America, as Alt R&B became a thing to talk about (in the '00s, we just called it neo-soul). In the two years since he first muttered, "I'm the drug in your veins… I'm what you want, I'm what you need," a sizable segment of the new, unsigned, Tumblr-grazing indie world has been heavily inspired, or at least compelled to action, by the Weeknd's post-genre misadventures. (Drake's newest protégé, PARTYNEXTDOOR, is great, but check that carbon-copied bleating on "Wild Bitches").
Tesfaye might be the face of "PBR&B," but there's always an overarching sense that he doesn't want it: Even though his face adorns the cover art of this new, label-funded "debut"; and despite the high-profile presence of a Drake feature ("Live For"), which supposedly proves that we were wrong about those nameless shots on Drizzy's "5 A.M. in Toronto"; and even when the two chant, "This the shit that I live for," it's chased with the foreboding, "With the people I'd die for."
That initial reticence to show his face or give interviews prompted more than one thinkpiece on anonymity as a facet of the new hype machine. But on Kiss Land Tesfaye contends with the idea that artistic success means sacrificing his private life. He makes a case for this immediately on "Professional," singing, "So you're somebody now, but what's a somebody in a nobody town? / You made enough to quit a couple years ago, but it consumes you." Ostensibly directed at one of his faceless stripper muses — yep, they're back — these barbs increasingly seem designed to hold a mirror up to his own foibles. Remember how on The Hills they'd never acknowledge their own reality-show stardom? This is the antithesis of that. Let's pray we never catch Tesfaye cheesing in an Instagram with the Biebs.
Kiss Land is the Weeknd floating in the glass tank of fame, resigned but undeterred. On his first recordings, Tesfaye's echo-y warble and brooding lyrics were usually buried in the mix, giving the songs a lost-in-space vibe. But here, everything's turned up. His voice sits prominent and high — in content and tone, he's singing more directly to the listener than ever before — and if he's overwhelmed, it's simply a byproduct of the gargantuan drums and unyielding power-synth scaffolding.
Mostly, though, this is stark stuff, devoid of strong melodies and sing-along hooks. Tesfaye rolls with the allusions instigated by Echoes of Silence's "Dirty Diana" cover, this time conjuring the wind-machine, steam-rising, mid-tempo earnestness of Dangerous-era MJ. Despite the denials, the Portishead rip is palpable on the growling, heavy-artillery drums of "Belong to the World," while the title track employs one of his own old tricks, reprising the bait-and-switch tactics of his first mixtape's "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls." It's got new, weird female-vocal ephemera fluttering throughout — screaming, sighing, tittering — and the track's second half isn't as drastic of a flip this time, but it's still a familiar (and great) sequencing device used well.
According to its creator, Kiss Land is essentially a red herring, title-wise: This record is supposed to be sinister. But there's little of the overtly bleak lyrics vs. twinkling melodic dissonance that made Balloons so menacing, and though the lyrical motifs are similar — paranoia, loneliness, drugs, flailing misogyny — it's way less hedonistic and markedly more emotive: "I give it all to you"; "You taught me how to love"; "I'm always getting high because my confidence is low." Tesfaye still nulls vulnerabilities with cynical punch lines, but here he acknowledges the other person in the emotional transaction, uncovering a more human side.
For a high-stakes studio debut, this is a totally wayward record. It's not intentionally difficult like Kanye's Yeezus, but as with that album, there's no clear single. The most accessible entry point is the mid-'90s Raphael Saadiq bounce of Pharrell's "Wanderlust" remix, only available on the deluxe edition. Maybe Tesfaye's early anonymity was a way of shielding himself from turning into click bait: "I chose the life…I made the trade," he admits on "Adaptation." Or maybe this is just an honest reflection of where the young twentysomething finds himself, creatively and personally. Kiss Land plays like a more considered, better-mastered continuation of Echoes of Silence, not anything dramatically different. And in that way, the dude from Toronto who created a shift is saying that he'll shift again only when he's ready.