R&B artists don’t usually point to the directors of “Halloween,” “The Fly,” and “Alien” as sources of musical inspiration for their debut albums. However, in a July interview with Complex, Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, did just that, explaining that his album debut, “Kiss Land,” was his attempt to “capture fear” as effectively as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott did in their films. Unfortunately, the only fear “Kiss Land” actually inspires is that of listening to it more than once. On “Kiss Land,” melodic homogeneity, tasteless production, and an utter lack of artistic restraint combine to produce an album that isn’t merely boring, but downright aggravating.
What makes the failure of “Kiss Land” so disappointing is that it comes from a musician who put out 2011’s best record: the mixtape “House of Balloons.” When it was released, “Balloons” felt momentous, a genre-defying landmark of 21st century music. Tesfaye’s songwriting was menacing, yet alluring; complex, yet irresistibly memorable. The Weeknd released two more mixtapes in 2011, the decidedly darker “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence.” Although not nearly as catchy as “Balloons,” these two records were still cohesive and well-crafted.
In the ensuing two years, almost everything has gone sour. To start, the heavy-handed production on “Kiss Land” feels completely out of sync with Tesfaye’s songs. The arena rock synths, soaring guitar, and slap bass that envelop “Love in the Sky” strip the song of any emotional depth, rendering it a turgid and forgettable exercise. The discordant synths that pummel the latter half of “The Town” are more likely to induce a headache than inspire fear. I could go on. While “Kiss Land” still sounds like the Weeknd, the crudity of its production represents a major step back from that of 2011’s mixtapes.
It’s unlikely, though, that better production could have saved “Kiss Land,” because the album’s biggest fault is Tesfaye’s suddenly insufferable songwriting. Since “Balloons,” Tesfaye has traded in his memorable hooks for increasingly unmelodic and repetitive melisma. The tunes on “Kiss Land” flounder, sending Tesfaye’s still-perfect falsetto up and down the octaves with no sense of purpose.
The sharp, spare beats that gave songs such as “The Morning” and “What You Need” their vibrancy have been discarded as well. Instead, on “Kiss Land,” Tesfaye opts for slow, booming rhythms that only serve to highlight the album’s uncreative songwriting. And on the few occasions that Tesfaye does try to speed it up, the results are even worse. For example, the chorus of “Live For” (“This the shit that I live for / With the people I’d die for”) has a rhythm so utterly slapped-together that you feel almost ashamed that Drake has to build the album’s only guest verse around it. Mercifully, at just under four minutes, “Live For” is the shortest track on “Kiss Land.” As such, it’s one of the few songs on the album in which Tesfaye doesn’t insist on doing in six minutes what he should have done in three.
“Kiss Land” abounds with such failures. “Belong to the World” sounds like a reject from a Coheed and Cambria tribute album, from its bombastic sound right down to its laughably self-serious lyrics (“I want to embrace you / Domesticate you”). “Wanderlust” starts off somewhat promisingly, but quickly devolves into a Michael Jackson-mimicking vamp built around the phrase (not joking here) “precious little diamond.” Unfortunately, these lyrics aren’t anomalies on “Kiss Land.” Gone are the simple, haunting declarations of “Balloons” (“He’s what you want / I’m what you need”). Instead, Tesfaye populates “Kiss Land” with tongue twisters like “I think I lost the only piece that held it all in place / Now my madness is the only love I let myself embrace.”
Two years is a short time, but the artistic decline the Weeknd has suffered since 2011 is nevertheless crushingly steep. If anything, this has to provide some hope that “Kiss Land” is an anomaly, not a sign of things to come. But with a debut album this terrible, maybe the Weeknd should go back to making mixtapes.
—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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