Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, finds himself in the rather strange situation of enjoying huge life changing success without actually releasing a proper record. Tesfaye’s 2011 series of mixtapes as The Weeknd established him as something of an RnB auteur, specialising in highly atmospheric and intimate spooked soul. Trilogy, released late last year, collected those mixes into something that could loosely be described as a debut album; however, as a conventional recording artist, Kiss Land is Tesfaye’s major label debut proper.
The album’s title is perhaps indicative of the dream world in which Tesfaye wants to create and in which he has been living since his fame blew up. It’s a record that could only follow his astounding success. The sound is similar; however, in tone and spirit, Kiss Land is very much the sound of The Weeknd engaging in solipsistic indulgence.
The world he inhabits here is one of fantasy and nightmare. At times, the record is overpoweringly dark, cold and isolated. The songs are about familiar tropes of fame, excess and power. This could have been a fascinating album in which he gives his response to the adjustment to relative fame and glory. Instead, he prefers to indulge in ponderous self-loathing and lamentably lascivious lust. The album is littered with near-endless tales of prostitutes, groupies, drugs and hedonistic debauchery. The title track describes the excesses and vices brought on by his success: “I went from starting at the same four walls for 21 years to seeing the whole world in just 12 months.” It’s a shame then that the world he describes seemingly goes no further than his self-centred personality and the four walls of his various hotel bedrooms.
Kiss Land is an unrelentingly joyless album, and getting through its very long duration is something of a slog. Tesfaye is a master at atmospheric manipulation; however, his songs here are sorely lacking in dynamism as well as light and shade. A one-paced feel permeates throughout shimmering, airy, dolorous laments like opener Professional – featuring a spooked Emika sample – and Love In The Sky’s aching guitar. Elsewhere, attempts to appropriate different sounds fall short. Belong To The World is an engaging love song hamstrung by a jarring speeded up sample of Portishead’s Machine Gun. You get the distinct impression that the sample has been hacked on in an effort to show off rather than because the song demanded it. (For their part, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow has tweeted more than once that the band did not agree for the sample to be used, yet The Weeknd went ahead with it anyway.)
One pleasing feature about Kiss Land is Tesfaye’s desire to eschew any guest stars except his long-time collaborator Drake. Despite some ill-judged lyrics, Drake’s focused and energised rhymes provide a nice uplift – as well as a well-timed advert for his own album, released just the next week through the same major label.
Kiss Land’s many flaws aside, there are a few reminders that Tesfaye is a remarkable talent. His voice is a glorious instrument throughout as it drifts across the soft focus beats, a ghostly, icy presence. You just wish he would let himself go slightly and have fun. By far the best track here is Wanderlust, which features a satisfying Michael Jackson like disco groove. This piece of upbeat pop is an anomaly though, as Tesfaye prefers to wallow in the forgettable emoting of dull closer Tears In The Rain.
Despite Kiss Land being The Weeknd’s major label debut release, what was once a breath of fresh air now sounds rather played out. There is the distinct impression that Tesfaye will now best be served by going away and enjoying a break before trying to come up with some fresh ideas.