Kiss Land (to be released September 10, 2013)
The Weeknd has been an enigma in R&B.
After dropping a series of mixtapes in 2011, Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye established a cult following long before most fans even laid eyes on him. Songs steadily leaked online for months but there was never a face to pair with those tracks. The more Weeknd hid in the shadows – distancing himself from cameras while letting his music speak for itself – the louder his buzz grew. The tone of his music, categorized by its creeping pace and haunting echoes, just added to his mystery.
After a few high-profile guest spots, his mixtapes were compiled into an album late last year, prompting the single “Wicked Games” to be played on the radio ENDLESSLY.
R&B’s best-kept secret had finally been shared with the masses.
Longtime Weeknd fans shouldn’t worry, though. Weeknd’s newfound fame hasn’t caused him to change course. Kiss Land is fueled the same tracks that brought Weeknd fame – lots of sex and self-loathing clouded in a drug-induced haze.
Listening to a Weeknd song is like falling in a coma after the world’s best/worst after party. The sounds are warped, the atmosphere is thick and the world is ruled by lust and indulgence. But don’t write off this set as typical strip club anthems masquerading as R&B. There is artistry here.
The haunting score and strong songwriting of “Professional” depict the strife of a stripper: “Your freedom was here in this cage all along.” Then, on “Belong to the World,” Weeknd unsuccessfully tries to pull a Material Girl from the grips of avarice.
More often than not, though, Weeknd is a victim of the excesses he warns others against. The title track is by far the best depiction of this, a nearly 8-minute decent into madness. On a song that howls with a woman’s squeals he frankly tells his girl: “Meet me in the room where the kisses ain’t free/you gotta pay with your body/not really into kisses leading to nothing.” Eventually Weeknd’s track evolves (or devolves) into a frustrated rant of paranoia and depression. It’s a theme that’s repeated amid the raindrops of “Love In The Sky,” “always getting high because my confidence is low.”
Yeah, this ain’t your grandma’s R&B. Frankie Beverly it’s not.
Vocally, Weeknd’s falsetto is usually a perfect match for the album’s moody tone. He conjures memories of Michael Jackson on “Pretty” and his vocals leaps from high hats to synths to electric guitar licks on “The Town.” It constantly adds layers to the listening experience.
The dark, moody set is short on mainstream appeal, though. The closest might be “Wanderlust,” which is backed by a bit of 1980s-era energy. “Live For,” featuring Drake, likely will be on radio playists soon (because, well, it features Drake) but its reptitive and lazy hook make it the weakest track by far.
Trying to deduce a Weeknd album is like trying to decode a Picasso painting. Wading through so many bizarre layers will turn off many listeners. However, the deeper you tread, the greater appreciation you’ll have. Kiss Land isn’t warm and fuzzy R&B, nor is it cheap and sleazy sex music. It’s cloudy and confusing, carnal but remorseful.
Figuring it out is half the fun.
Best tracks: “Kiss Land,” “Professional,” “The Town”
4 stars out of 5