If we’re being honest, the reaction to Kiss Land was written before this thing hit promo e-mails and What.CD. The line on Abel Tesfaye’s Dark Heart of Hooking Up R&B has been set since he released his third “mixtape” –they were all albums, and we’re kidding ourselves to call them otherwise—in 2011: “diminishing returns,” “oppressively nihilistic,” “same songs” and “not as good as Frank Ocean.” Granted, some of that is deserved; Ocean and the Weeknd were perfectly primed to be the opposite sides of a PBR&B coin, and magazine editors are always looking for trends (it also doesn’t help that Frank’s already “won”—he has a new classic album, trophies and got to punch out Chris Brown).
In the two years since, Tesfaye has been punished punitively by the Internet for arriving with a style that was fully formed (something Frank didn’t manage)—he makes songs that sound like they were written inside the sex clubs Michael Fassbender visits in Shame. Tesfaye has never met a hookup he couldn’t make seem as tragic and terrifying as the last 10 minutes of Apocalypse Now. He makes songs that sound like they were made by someone who thinks music begins and ends with Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”. And he’s been that way since House of Balloons, back when he tried to stay “anonymous” and was famous mostly for everyone believing “the Weeknd” actually meant “Drake incognito.”
Which is to say, I get it. Kiss Land is not some stylistic left turn, and its lyrics mostly confirm the already held opinions of people who tweeted LOLZ about this album’s post-coitus bedhead cover. But damned if this thing isn’t the most perfect ‘80s scene kid R&B album since, I guess Echoes of Silence? As my man Craig Jenkins said on Twitter this week, if the Heathers came out tomorrow, Kiss Land would be the soundtrack.
For his part, Tesfaye seems to have internalized some the criticisms of his first three releases. Kiss Land relies less on the heavy atmospherics, Tesfaye is not bathing his vocals in as many effects as he did in the past and the songs aren’t as much of a trip through the apparently dystopic cocaine sexwarzone that Echoes of Silence made Toronto out to be. Tesfaye still sings about becoming famous, the hole in yourself that develops when you get everything you want all the time (“Adaptation”), treats women like things to be conquered (“Belong to the World”), and hanging with his crew (“Live For”, which features a Drake verse), but sonically, this thing is lighter and less relentlessly coke-den-y. The album peaks with “Wanderlust”, one of Tesfaye’s three best tracks, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sade album in 1984. “You’re in love with something bigger than love,” Tesfaye hits with his falsetto, over arena rock drums and a perfectly rescued Fox the Fox sample. “Wanderlust” is clearly pegged as the hit here; Pharrell does a remix on the deluxe edition. But mostly, it’s a better ‘80s new wave&B pastiche than any band from Silver Lake or Williamsburg has been able to muster in the last five years.
Kiss Land’s narrative arc is about a guy who spent his whole life staring at the walls of his bedroom being let loose on an adoring public of people high on drugs and money via a national tour. This has roughly been the public perception of Tesfaye’s personal arc since he brokethrough two and a half years ago. But the thing that makes Tesfaye such an interesting persona is that while that’s what he’s trying to make Kiss Land about, the album still sounds like it was made by that guy after he spent another year sitting in his bedroom imagining what it’d be like to have groupies and access to expensive drugs, and a crew that involves Drake and a condo he hasn’t seen because he’s so rich. You can’t help but think part of the reason Tesfaye doesn’t do interviews is that he knows that he can’t possibly live up to the persona he’s built on his records. There’s no way he could; after all, he says, “I’m always getting high cuz my confidence low,” four tracks into Kiss Land.
The muted reaction to Kiss Land marks Tesfaye as a victim of the Big K.R.I.T. effect; a musician with a clearly defined style oversaturating the market with free product in a short period, peaking too early in that over-saturation (House of Balloons: Wuz Here), and hitting a low (Echoes of Silence: 4evaNaDay) before delivering a recovering debut LP for a real label that is actually significantly better than you’d think a major label LP from him could be. Kiss Land is not going to usurp Thursday or House of Balloons as the theme music for the cool Tumblr parties you assume people cooler than you are having, but it’s another release of singular R&B from one of music’s most enchanting weirdos.
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Kiss Land on Amazon.