It’s difficult to believe that it’s been two years since The Weeknd emerged, unheralded and remarkably fully formed, with an immaculate trilogy of electro R&B mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence.
Since then, the shroud of secrecy surrounding Abel Tesfaye has dissipated somewhat, with the 23-year-old Ontario native guesting on a number of high-profile tracks, signing to Republic, and touring extensively throughout Europe and North America. Now, after a long gestation period and a significant boost in production resources, the long-awaited Kiss Land has finally secured a release.
Terrible name aside, the album is an unexpectedly familiar affair, eschewing big-budget bombast in favour of the same thematic and stylistic beats of its predecessors. While this is a welcome artistic choice, in practice Kiss Land struggles to build on the foundations laid down so convincingly and comprehensively by The Weeknd already.
An opening half that’s light on highlights doesn’t exactly thrill in the same way that ‘Lonely Star’ or ‘D.D.’ did in 2011, but it serves to set the tone. The abrasive, rushing percussion on ‘Belong to the World‘ offers a welcome change of pace from the early drudgery of ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Love in the Sky’, but single ‘Live For’, a collaboration with regular associate Drake, is disappointing; coming across as little more than a tired retread of last year’s also underwhelming Take Care cut, ‘Crew Love’.
There’s also the issue of The Weeknd’s attitude. “This ain’t nothing to relate to,” croons Tesfaye repeatedly at one point, and he’s right. Kiss Land, like much of his previous work, concerns the lecherous, misanthropic ruminations of a talented but conceited young man, and that’s a hard sell, even if you do boast arguably the most impassioned, urgent falsetto since Michael Jackson.
For all its faults however, there’s value to be found in Kiss Land for those willing to overlook its protagonist’s shortcomings, and the trio of closing songs in particular represent the best of what The Weeknd can offer. The album’s title track is a glittering, two-act anthem that dissolves into a throbbing maelstrom of wailing synths and siren moans. It’s followed by ‘Pretty’, itself a gorgeous, unsettling and spectacularly vindictive opus. And then there’s album closer ‘Tears in the Rain’: a lusciously packaged lament that’s every bit as hokey as its title would suggest, and all the better for it.
A strong finale can’t paper over Kiss Land’s cracks, but it does manage to act as a reminder of how compelling The Weeknd can be when production and personality are working in harmony. Ultimately though, whether or not the album works will depend on the listener’s ability to stomach Tesfaye’s intoxicating combination of narcissism and nihilism.