The journey of pop noir singer The Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye, has been one of great anticipation and understatement.
The singer’s “House of Balloons” trilogy cast him as a prodigy waiting to conquer the world to the tune of baroque synths and thick atmosphere.
After releasing three of the most inventive, compelling albums of 2011 for free, The Weeknd soon became the face of Generation Y’s dark R&B;, with hardly any exposure or mainstream recognition.
This all changes with “Kiss Land,” The Weeknd’s major label debut on Republic Records.
Audibly it’s a cleaner record than his past work.
His voice is prominent and clear, on top of the music rather than buried in it like before.
The music itself sticks to “Echoes of Silence’s” (2011) ethic, using few colors to paint a big picture.
Songs rarely stray past a formula of cold, echoing plinks and drums that smack like pistons. Warm, finger-picked guitars splash here and there to ease the tension.
Occasionally the album gives surprises.
“Wanderlust” is new wave in the style of Duran Duran, while title track “Kiss Land” translates cloud and trap musics into new worlds.
Every song is as gorgeous and perfect as the last, never outstaying its welcome or leaving anything unfulfilled.
The Weeknd’s own performance is harder to pin down.
Quality-wise, it’s flawless.
Every wail, every falsetto, every pseudo-Amharic melody breaks through the brain with the grace of a telepath.
Lyric-wise is where it gets complicated.
The Weeknd may never have the honor of “Writer of Our Generation” – that could easily end up with Frank Ocean.
It’s the way The Weeknd delivers his words that gets you.
He’s a true student of R. Kelly, using his siren-like voice to transform the crudest lines into irresistible candy.
Here’s where the similarities end: R. Kelly, even at his most vulnerable, never loses that insane optimism that propels him to success in the face of his personal failings.
The Weeknd, or at least his on-record persona, is the opposite.
Stories of lust and conquest feel more needy than boastful.
It’s as if the idea of being wanted is more important to The Weeknd than anything,
“Adaptation” talks of true love lost in the face of bitter promiscuity.
Drugs bury his low confidence in “Love In the Sky,” while “Belong To the World” describes his dream girl as dead inside and unattainable.
When the singer meets his lost love again in “Pretty,” he takes comfort knowing she’ll never feel more special than when she’s with him.
It’s interesting to find The Weeknd so disengaged from the lust-making his music inspires so powerfully.
Then again, the video for “Kiss Land” provides some hints.
Here, porn stars Asa Akira, Asphyxia Noir and Bonnie Rotten ravish each other under neon lights.
Where’s The Weeknd? Sitting at the front of the bed, staring down with his back turned to an orgy.
The only moment of genuine triumph on “Kiss Land” belongs to Drake giving his usual take on success against the odds on “Live For.”
Drake’s presence on this album makes an intriguing statement about today’s music.
Our generation of rap and R&B; is defined by the struggle to live up to the ‘90s on our own terms.
If Drake is our generation’s Jay-Z, a clean-cut loved by the hardcore, The Weeknd is truly our R. Kelly, a Lothario with no self-esteem.
There’s no doubt The Weeknd is a star. “Kiss Land” is the soundtrack of a star depressing into a black hole. Resistance is futile.
See The Weeknd perform Sunday at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, TX.