When Abel Tesfaye, the man behind The Weeknd, first released ‘What You Need’ in December 2010, he seemed to transform a genre within the space of 3 and a half minutes. He managed to breathe life into a stagnating genre, and to open it up to an entirely new audience. During the previous decade, RnB had ostensibly renounced its soul roots, and turned towards pop. The Weeknd represented the beginning of a new form of RnB, one that embraced its 90s predecessors but adopted a much darker, more synthesised sound. In one sense he was building on work already done by artists like The Dream, Frank Ocean, How To Dress Well and even Cassie; but in truth none of these artists managed to stir the industry in quite the way The Weeknd did. The initial anonymity, the sound, and the enormous hype caused by ‘What You Need’ did parallel the rise of another artist, Jai Paul with his single ‘BTSTU’. And yet where Jai Paul seemed unwilling to bow to the demands that accompanied the hype, waiting another 18 months to release a second track, The Weeknd met it head on, releasing three nine-track mixtapes in the space of only 9 months.
The mixtapes were later released as a compilation, aptly titled Trilogy. The first part of the trilogy, House of Balloons, has Tesfaye at his most dissipated and also his loneliest – he yearns for the girls who leave in the morning to stay a little longer. On Thursday, the debauchery remains, but this time the girls are meaningless, he’s been doing this too long to care anymore. And finally, Echoes of Silence is Tesfaye finally admitting that he needs more than the superficiality of the girls and debauchery of the prior instalments. And so Trilogy, when examined as a whole, was an incredibly ambitious project that became even greater than its composite parts. Perhaps what was most intriguing about the narrative of Trilogy was that it provided what the mixtapes alone had not: a suggestion that there was more to Tesfaye than just decadence and fast women.
However, for better or worse, Kiss Land is not the album that Echoes of Silence hinted at. It continues in the same thematic vein as before, and this is demonstrated immediately with the first two tracks of Kiss Land, ‘Professional’ and ‘The Town’. Neither song would be out of place on Trilogy. ‘Professional’ tells the story of a relationship with a girl, probably a stripper, who is unable to have any emotional intimacy with him. ‘The Town’ continues in the same vein, but now that girl has left him for another man.
While the themes may be unaltered, the sound has developed impressively since his last work. In an interview with Complex, Tesfaye described the world he created as inspiration for the title, saying, “When I think about Kiss Land, I think about a terrifying place. It’s a place I’ve never been to before that I’m very unfamiliar with.” And this line perfectly captures the sound of the album. It’s become even bigger, and much more sonically varied, switching with ease from the eeriness of ‘Professional’ to the bouncing, Daft Punk-esque synth of ‘Wanderlust’ to the huge title track, ‘Kiss Land’, that sounds like a much darker rendition of Trilogy’s standout, ‘House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls’.
There are cuts where The Weeknd keeps the truncated, stuttering drumbeats, disturbed vocal samples and dark synth sounds that worked so well with his unique falsetto on Trilogy. This time they are paragoned by the album’s epic title track, and the vast and abrasive ‘Belong To The World’, both immediate standouts.
Unfortunately, there are also times when the album falls short. ‘Love In The Sky’ recycles Thursday’s themes, and its lack of substance, twinned with an overly simple and repetitive drumbeat, leaves one feeling that it would have been improved had it been reduced to an interlude. ‘Live For’ and ‘Pretty’ construct decent sonic beds but suffer from alarmingly poor hooks. Long-time The Weeknd chum, Drake, who guests on ‘Live For’ offers a verse that would have gone some way to redeeming the song, had he not latched onto the hook and repeated it ad nauseum.
And then comes the outstanding ‘Adaption’. There has always been a hint that The Weeknd’s depravity reflects an inner anguish, and acts as a way to mask his weaknesses. On ‘Adaption’ we hear the mask being stripped away, and his sincerity is painfully clear when he laments “it’s been a test to see how far a man can go without himself”. The haunting, distorted vocals that punctuate the track provide the perfect foil to the openness of Tesfaye’s lyrics. This is Tesfaye as vulnerable as we’ve seen him, and the production accentuates this perfectly. The results are immense.
In the same interview with Complex, Tesfaye said that for him, Kiss Land is “an environment that’s just honest fear. 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. Kiss Land is like a horror movie.” This feeling of uncertainty is embodied by ‘Adaption’, which feels like the track that Trilogy hinted Tesfaye might be able to create. Kiss Land is an album that heavily references the material that came before it, and that sheds light on his potential future. For now, though, we can be happy with a beautifully crafted, haunting instalment to immerse ourselves in as we await the next world that Tesfaye creates.
Stream and buy Kiss Land here.