Kiss Land (and The Weeknd’s entire oeuvre) shares some thematic DNA with the film Spring Breakers, an exhibition – and arguable indictment – of hedonism crossing the line into atrocity. This is what makes the project’s best music fascinating and its worst music turgid, bordering on execrable, as does its initially unprecedented take on R&B tropes. I was excited to see what vocalist Abel Tesfaye and producer Illangelo would do with a straight-up album, even if the preceding mixtapes are basically traditional albums, particularly House of Balloons, The Weeknd’s unquestionable high-water mark.
Musically, this record is pristine. The Weeknd’s sonic palette – reverb-laden rhythms, dark and murky synths, atmosphere-building and occasionally atonal guitar, Tesfaye’s versatile voice – remains intact. But, it’s expanded to a widescreen scale that can be gorgeous, especially on the single/best-of-album track “Belong to the World.”
It’s miles away from the cloudy, modern-traditional R&B of House – Kiss Land is far darker, influenced more by Nine Inch Nails, Portishead (more on that later), Massive Attack and Prince’s weirder shit than R. Kelly. Vocally, Testafaye is in good form – highlights include “Wanderlust,” “Live For,” “Pretty” and the aforementioned “World.”
As he stated in one of his first/only interviews, Tesfaye wanted a horror-film vibe for Kiss Land. It’s certainly there, most blatantly on the title track. You feel dread for the endless, nameless parade of women entangled in drugged-out trysts with Tesfaye or his narrative surrogate(s) (more on THAT later too…), and for him, even (a little bit) as none of this sounds remotely enjoyable – nor should it.
On the second half of “Kiss Land,” he admits, “This ain’t nothin’ to relate to,” while describing his omnivorous drug intake. (The details here effectively make a mockery of hard drug use being fun – mixing painkillers, Adderall and booze, chronic coke nosebleeds, ecstasy and OxyContin cocktails and so on.)
“Pretty” and “Belong to the World” represent the surest signs of a lyrical perspective that’s flirting with humanity. Both examine a relationship that’s clearly become open – on both sides – and starkly consider the hurt involved, with Tesfaye begging, saying “No one will make you feel this pretty,” with no irony, on the former. Kiss Land isn’t a great album, but it’s a solid effort that hints at greater potential from one of R&B’s truly unique presences.
This is in many ways a morally reprehensible album made by a man, who is either himself deplorable or finds it amusing to play-act as such a person within his lyrics.
(Let me explain a little. You might be thinking, “But, um, Liam you recommended Yeezus and other stuff with dirty lyrics about women, so you’re a hypocrite!” First off, as unpleasant as Kanye sometimes gets on Yeezus (a la “sweet and sour sauce”) there’s a strong emotional through-line there that’s virtually nonexistent here. Kanye is unrepentant about many things, but not his overarching flaws in terms of dealing with women, as songs like “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2” prove. They also show that he has some desire to change. Tesfaye’s attitude is basically, I’M SAD, WOMEN ARE AWFUL, BUT SEX IS NICE AND SO ARE DRUGS, KTHANXBYE.)
Piece of fuckin work, this kid. Exhibit A, from “Kiss Land”: “But when she put it in her mouth, she can’t seem to reach my…” So, you’ll talk about deep-throating but don’t even have the balls to say “balls” in the lyric? It’s not coy or clever, it’s a pussy half-measure. Own your shit, dude.
Exhibit B: Not that fame can’t buy you women, but the massive act Tesfaye puts on about his sexual prowess smacks of bullshit. I can’t be the only person who thinks this. It’s like full-of-shit rappers talking about who they killed. (Look at how wack his hair is.) This is a guy with a song – “Initiation,” on Echoes of Silence – about a MOTHERFUCKING GANG RAPE or what sure as shit sounds like one. If Tesfaye is taking on points of view outside his own and trying to critique this debased shit, identifying it as symptomatic of emotional vacuousness, I’m not asking for him to make his disapproval blatant. Spring Breakers and Yeezus certainly do not, despite having such perspectives. It’s that his revelry in it makes it hard to defend or take seriously. Believe me, when I was a bigger fan of this band/project/whatever, I tried.
Moving on. The music is in large part more of the same as the mixtapes (particularly the inferior second and third), just with a bigger budget and darker-than-ever sound. Also, Tesfaye’s refusal to admit that he sampled Portishead’s “Machine Gun” on “Belong to the World” is just aggravating. There’s no shame in sampling, just pay for the shit or release it free! And honestly, as smooth or whatever as Tesfaye’s voice is, it’s also half-falsetto, which anyone who can sing knows is pretty easy to make sound good if you can do it in the first place and are well-miked. It’s not indicative of real vocal prowess. His over-reliance on that and on the second-highest level of his register make his oft-lacking – and now largely terrible – lyrics sound even more ridiculous. The ability to talk frankly about fucking and an endless goddamn drug diet don’t make you a songwriter. Miguel is basically owning The Weeknd on every level – I’d argue that he has similar subject matter/concerns – with a lot less darkness but way more nuance and song-craft.
TAILS, after much debate. If you like The Weeknd a lot, you’ll dig Kiss Land just fine, I’m sure. But if you’re on the fence, just go on Spotify, listen to House of Balloons (the first 9 tracks of the Trilogy set) and leave this shit alone.
Liam Green can be reached at email@example.com.