It’s difficult to believe over two years have passed since Abel Tesfaye made his first on-record appearance as Weeknd. The 23-year-old R&B upstart has had a dramatic rise from internet oddity to, as he states on the title track here, “Seeing the whole world in just twelve months.” That’s not bad for a guy just breaking into his twenties. In 2011, Tesfaye self-released three mixtapes, the first of which, House Of Balloons, was a lyrically depraved document of the pitfalls of his life in Toronto. Skirting the lines between depression, self-loathing and misogyny, the project reached near-cult status in large part due to Tesfaye’s vocal performance that almost immediately garnered Michael Jackson comparisons. The hype surrounding his original mixtapes led to all three being packaged by Universal as Trilogy. Looking back, quite a bit has changed since his original offering: countless artists are biting his style, R&B in general has hit a new stride with Frank Ocean and Miguel as household names, and well-known artists are experimenting with atypical producers and beats.
All of this makes the arrival of Tesfaye’s proper debut album, Kiss Land, slightly problematic. Where does he go from there? Although he has a sizable amount of experience programming and writing for the explicit purpose of piecing together a full-length, at times this album feels aimless. In terms of production value, he follows the groundwork he laid out over the last two years, working with two producers in particular—DannyBoyStyles and Jason Quenneville. They may not be Illangelo and Doc McKinney, but it has led to a cohesive sound throughout the entire album, whether it’s the way songs blend into each other (as on Adaptation and Love In The Sky) or the consistent repurposing of drum sounds. I will say he’s taken advantage of the large studio spaces that are apparently available to him now. The production value of the album is enormous. Where many artists chase dated sounds to emulate those who came before them, it feels as though Tesfaye is grasping for something a few blocks forward. At the same time, this collection lacks enough memorable hooks or any particular standout melody. The closest the record gets to having a moment like House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls is on The Town, and even that is marred by some clumsy prog-influenced stabs midway through.
Lyrically, Tesfaye is uncharacteristically subdued. Explicatives aren’t flying out his mouth as much as his earlier material, hence a lot of the vivid imagery of his earlier songs is lost. Where the mixtapes were a trip through the mind of a young man on the cusp of success yet bound by the confines of his city, Kiss Land is a journey through the life of traveling musician. Traveling is the keyword here. It’s safe to say his busy schedule has left less time for reflextion or developing meaningful experiences, and it shows. For the most part, songs come off as vapid and barely take a knife to the surface of his earlier work. In his defense, this is a traditional trap for many a follow-up to a successful debut. Don’t take this the wrong way, Kiss Land is highly listenable; and given what Kanye West did earlier this summer with Yeezus,, people may be even more open to the less traditional instrumentation Tesfaye has utilized. One definitive positive can be said—Tesfaye had a clear vision and executed it.