opinion by JEAN-LUC MARSH
It is difficult to reconcile the notion that The Weeknd was once a shadowy, anonymous songbird dropping mixtapes like bombs of debauched perfection from a cold perch in the Great White North. The indeterminate entity behind the music only added to the allure, endowing the tense, minimalist music with an extra dimension, and lending credibility to the tales of alcohol, drugs, and womanizing by attributing them to a narrator without a concrete identity. We, as the audience were left to decide who The Weeknd was, and the result was someone dredged up from the darkest corners of our imagination.
However, acclaim proved the death knell for anonymity. Over the course of three mixtapes and a number of public appearances, Abel Tsefaye, the mastermind behind the narco-R&B project, emerged from the shadows into the spotlight. By the time his three tapes were consolidated into Trilogy, he had become all but a fixture in the music world. Kiss Land takes this abandonment of facelessness and namelessness to an even greater degree. Tsefaye’s visage graces the cover of the album unobscured, a far cry from the identity concealment of yesteryear. But more indicative of his move from the periphery to the limelight, is the material on Kiss Land. This is Tsefaye without any smokescreen to hide behind, and the result is transfixing.
The first thing that strikes any casual listener about Kiss Land, is its sheer scale in relation to The Weeknd’s previous work. Everything feels bigger. Yet, in terms of content, Kiss Land is nothing revolutionary. The presentation of Tsefaye’s existential lasciviousness is what changes between records. Kiss Land tackles the same ideas through a different lens: more colorful and frenetic, less controlled. These are the same tales, just told under the influence of an amphetamine frenzy rather than a codeine calm. The final product is a record featuring such varied sounds as distorted Asian pornography, vocoder excerpts in French, jarring metallic synthesizers, and of course, the disputed Portishead “Machine Gun” sample that forms the backbone of the album’s unmistakable centerpiece “Belong to the World.” It is a menagerie wild enough to send the album into a schizophrenic tailspin, but the threads of Tsefaye’s falsetto and the depraved subject matter manage to maintain a feeling of cohesion.
Indeed, robust rhythms and riffs such as the one found on “Belong to the World” are the status quo on Kiss Land. The coda of “Adaptation” is absolutely massive, with a repeated sing-along line that encroaches on anthemic territory. “Wanderlust” takes on almost a disco quality, skipping along with the cadence of something from Michael Jackson’s repertoire. Tsefaye takes on a rapid-fire hook with his trademark helium pipes on “Live For,” and even Drake gets into it, delivering a verse at a pace much faster than the jaded tone he previously affected on Trilogy cut, “The Zone.”
As with any abrupt change in style, there are bound to be instances in which the transition is not as smooth. Penultimate track, “Pretty” has a chorus that feels forced, and only grates as it repeats throughout the course of the song. “Wanderlust” features a cringe-worthy, bromide of a lyric: “Good girls go to heaven / And bad girls go everywhere,” that halts an otherwise adequate verse. The aforementioned vigor of “Live For” occasionally becomes too fast-paced in a reach for radio playability, and the endless reiterations of “This is the shit that I live for,” melt together into a mass of chipmunk-esque syllables. However, despite a few missteps, the majority of Kiss Land pulls off the transition seamlessly and without offense.
Faulting Tsefaye for a lack of creativity is a baseless claim. Sonically, his oeuvre has bridged the divide between barren and lush. Lyrically, he has perfected the motif of narcotized horror. Kiss Land is the crystallization of a concept that has been gestating for over two years, an idea that swelled in scope and sound as the world embraced Tsefaye and his dysphoric, benumbed universe. It is fitting that he considers this LP his proper debut. Everything you heard before? That was the practice round. This is the real deal. [A-]