First, a disclaimer of sorts: Kiss Land is noticeably absent from any end-of-year lists for a reason – well, perhaps two. On a critical level Abel Tesfaye’s first studio effort came under fire for its maximalist production, regarded as overblown compared to his streamlined series of mixtapes. More contentious, however, was the record’s moral stance. In a post-‘Blurred Lines’ world, lines such as “your freedom was here in this cage all along” inescapably leave the listener in a conflicted position.
In many ways Kiss Land calls to mind the deliberately degenerate fiction of the fin de siecle period, works that were often expressions of excess and moral decay but articulated in a lush, aesthetically rich ways. That shouldn’t be something to shy away from sonically. And for those who remain undeterred by Tesfaye’s seemingly blatant misogyny, it becomes clear that whatever masochism is directed towards the fairer sex, an equal or larger share of it becomes internalised. Make no mistake, here The Weeknd is in a cage all his own.
It’s unsurprising then, that Kiss Land contains allusions to the iconography and narrative tropes of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner – a tale of disillusionment and finding identity in what you fear most. Tesfaye uses it as a parallel to his recent rise in popularity, entering the music business under the cloak of anonymity and detachment only to find oneself as consumed with sex, drugs and fame as his peers. On paper it reads as the product of an unruly ego but, as we’re reminded in the title track, he “went from staring at the same four walls for 21 years to seeing the whole world in just twelve months.” That kind of change isn’t healthy for anyone, particularly a young man.
Such inner turmoil is reflected in Tesfaye’s newly-updated sonic palette. The slow-burning, unhurried beats are gone, along with his relative obscurity, making way for blunt industrial force and an unshakable sense of atmosphere. In short, Kiss Land is the equivalent of looking at The Weeknd’s old aesthetic through a fun-house mirror – even its title track begins with the kind of stock screams found in the haunted houses of a fairground. Distortion is the name of the game here: ‘Belong To The World’ takes the already-imposing drum sample from Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’ and amplifies it to even more menacing heights, while ‘Adaptation’ recontextualises The Police’s ‘Bring On The Night’ in a morally bankrupt scene of hotel rooms and after-parties.
If that all sounds incredibly heavy-handed, it only comes off successfully because Tesfaye’s voice is completely the opposite – an earnest, indelible instrument capable of gliding through the mix or hanging over it where necessary, supplying melodies and hooks as toxic as the environment he illustrates. He belongs to the R. Kelly school of songcraft, deliberately articulating the indecorous in the most beautiful way possible. ‘Love In The Sky’ is the record’s finest moment vocally, Tesfaye’s falsetto soaring over a dystopian backdrop of thunder and rain. Sure, he brags about being able to make a woman climax “two or three times in a row,” but such crude braggadocio is rarely preceded by the line “I’m always getting high ‘cuz my confidence low.” And that’s really the point here.
Kiss Land ends in the same cathartic way as Blade Runner, even naming its closing track after the film’s now-iconic climactic scene. It’s a chilling reminder that things were always heading this way for The Weeknd, the unwilling recipient of ‘intelligent R&B”s torch. Here is 2013’s most underrated album by a country mile. Sure, critics would have creamed themselves for a redux of Trilogy, but never has a fall from grace sounded this harsh, this horrific, this human.