Album Review: “Kiss Land” by The Weeknd

| Music Editor
Two years ago, Abel Tesfaye took the blogosphere by storm. With just a single mixtape (“House of Balloons”) under his stage name, The Weeknd, Tesfaye had the rare privilege of anonymity in a world where a few quick Google searches can unmask even the most private artists. For months, his name and appearance remained unknown, leaving listeners to focus on the content of “House of Balloons.” And what a mixtape it was.

Cloaked in the perpetual haze of the rampant drug use recounted in so many of its lyrics, “House of Balloons” is a beautiful, if seriously unnerving, record. For all of its dream-pop samples and falsetto coos, this is still an album largely preoccupied with sexual manipulation. The character Tesfaye inhabits is an unrepentant hedonist, treating women and narcotics as objects to be consumed and discarded. But it was that dichotomy, between repulsive misogyny and gorgeous atmospherics, that made “House of Balloons” such an unforgettable listen. Tesfaye followed his debut with two more excellent outings, “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence,” in 2011, launching a rhythm-and-blues renaissance in the process.

Since then, Tesfaye has made more of an effort to become a public figure, touring semi-regularly and even granting his first interview just two months ago. After signing with Universal Republic Records for a commercial release of his mixtapes, entitled “Trilogy,” Tesfaye seemed primed for a breakout into the mainstream. It’s fitting, then, that “Kiss Land” makes overtures to the pop world as it boasts a brighter disposition than any of his previous releases. Yet the best moments of “Kiss Land” find Tesfaye diving back into his seedy rabbit hole, as he does on the album’s stunning title track. Featuring the sprawling two-part structure found in many of the best The Weeknd songs, “Kiss Land” finds Tesfaye at the very height of his powers, a point he often fails to reach on the rest of the album.

Perhaps as a result of his attempts at pop superstardom, “Kiss Land” is chock-full of thudding percussion, a far cry from the amorphous soundscapes that dominated his previous work. The distinct air of mystery so present on “Trilogy” is blunted by the insistent drum machines, condensed from a cloud of smoke into a concrete block. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the vocal melodies had the same quivering melancholy as those on “Trilogy.” But at times, Tesfaye seems intent on making “Kiss Land” palatable for Top 40 radio. His attempts to fuse his signature, hazy R&B with the styles of ’80s pop luminaries such as Prince and Michael Jackson is fairly compelling in theory, but he doesn’t always stick the landing.

The album improves markedly in its second half as Tesfaye sends the percussion further back in the mix. We’re left with fluid textures that make the songs more immersive and inviting. Looser structures on the final three tracks allow Tesfaye to stretch out and indulge his weirder, more vulnerable side. On “Kiss Land” and “Tears in the Rain,” he lets his guard down, burrowing into his character’s damaged psyche to hypnotic effect.

With his first three releases, Abel Tesfaye shaped R&B in his drugged-out image. While expecting his major label debut to have a similar impact is unrealistic, it still feels like a small step backward. Rather than doubling down on his strengths, he achieves the opposite, often sanitizing many of his best qualities. Yet if the album’s second half is any indication, all hope is not lost if he learns to trust his instincts the next time around.

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