The allure of The Weeknd was the fact that the world he sings about is not a place anyone would want to visit. In an R&B world where singers brag about what a good time they are having the Weeknd’s career was built on being that scene’s counter point. He was lurking in those same strip club that had Rihanna pouring it up but was in the corner dropping self-loathing lyrics like “Lemmie see that ass. Look at all this cash. And I emptied all my cards too. Now I’m fucking leaning on that…”
The persona Abel Tesfaye’s built around his project, The Weeknd, wants to take you down into his evil. R&B went everywhere thematically in it’s 70’s artist high point and found itself in a rut since then: after decades of around how awesome the parting, drinking, and drugs are it was ripe for someone to document the other side of that unsustainable lifestyle. It’s what makes him an interesting listen and made him a breath of fresh air a few years go along with fellow R&B revivalist Frank Ocean.
While his dark views are an anomaly in R&B the Weeknd has put out 30 plus songs spread out in 3 mixtapes (really albums) mining the same themes of revulsion, self-hatred, drugs and sexual abuse. Releasing another group of songs along the same vein would quickly wear out an audience but at the same time an artist might not want to completely abandon the sound that they expect. So what does an artist like the Weeknd do for his first major label release in Kiss Land?
Well, first thing first is to throw all those big corporate dollars into the sound. While his previous collaborators, Illangelo an Doc McKinney, did a superb job creating drugged out strange musical landscapes for the Weeknd to croon over, the work here is much more expansive. The same basic blueprint they created is still here; industrial sounding drums, ghostly female voices in the background, and ominous sounding synths. But it just sounds much more expensive and crisp with a heavier live instrumentation element. Vocally, Weeknd is stronger and channels vintage Michael Jackson more so than Michael was doing the later stage of his career.
Lyrically he is as well adjusted as ever:
My doctor told me to stop
And he gave me something to pop
I mix it up with some Adderall’s and I wait to get to the top
And I mix it up with some alcohol and I pour it up in a shot
I don’t care about you, why you worried ’bout me?
However, while we are still on the path of sex and slow suicide references to tour life and newfound fame makes you think that the mysterious Weeknd is opening up just a bit more about who’s behind that image. In that same song he sings, “I went from staring at the same four walls for 21 years to seeing the whole world in just 12 months”. Just like that character’ss shift in world view in that line with Kiss Land, Abel expands the dark universe of The Weeknd but keeps the core of what makes the project great.