Music Reviews
Kiss Land

The Weeknd Kiss Land

(Republic) Rating - 6/10

If it weren't for those gimp-mask wearing scamps Slipknot, it would be a fair claim to make that The Weeknd is the most anonymous act to ever headline Wembley Arena. Not that Abel Tesfaye has been playing the shy retiring type – there he is, staring out from Kiss Land’s cover in a way that’s either meant to be soulful or a bit smug, and which seems a long way away from the impeccable design of those mix-tapes that got everybody talking - but just to look at him reveals an odd sense of cognitive dissonance, that the brain can’t quite handle that this stocky, unremarkable looking bloke has been responsible for so many songs of pant-quiveringly sensuous mellifluousness over the past few years.

After all the chatter about the quality of that voice, and more specifically just how uncannily it sounded like MJ in his prime, died down a bit, focus tended to shift towards the content of Tesfaye's lyrics. At first it was just in the form of slightly derisive ribbing about just why this young guy who, if we took his rather boastful word for it, wasn’t short of… *ahem*… lady-friends, was so bloody sad all the time, then the more serious question as to whether he was a bit of a misogynist came to be bandied about, and, just to get it out of the way now, if your opinion on the latter issue based on those mix-tapes was ‘yes’, then Kiss Land is, unfortunately, not going to change your mind. In fact, there’s more than enough rum stuff going on here that it might well turn listeners who were previously inclined to look on his intentions a bit more favourably to that side too.

But then the question should be asked if we're meant to be taking him at face value (after all, he was churning out this stuff long before he had the VIP lifestyle to back it up), and even if we're meant to like him; the idea that he might well be method acting being a bit of a douche to give his career a bit more frisson (or, in his opinion, as a sort of paying homage to R Kelly and Prince), is an interesting one, and even counting such ill-judged porn-y provocations as the Pretty video, he’s still young and naïve enough, despite his prematurely world-weary act and mega-success, to come across as less threatening than the smiling on the surface but cynically hearted Robin Thicke. Besides, there’s no denying that The Weeknd can turn some fairly ugly sentiments into moments of sheer beauty; The Town – an unsurprisingly bitter and navel-gazing account of infidelity - might feature a (spiritually speaking) cheap and tawdry refrain of you like diamond rings/I can provide, I can provide for you, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a highly effective earworm though. 

Still, while angry, drink and drug fuelled sex has been the backbone of his output since day one, there was a sense in his mix-tapes, what with their prominent sampling of female artists, that he didn’t necessarily hold the power in these relationships. But now, thanks in part to this debut album proper’s very slick and more than a little bit cold production, that could even be said to come across as fairly male (check out the cock-rock guitar wailing that opens Love In The Sky), and such lines as I’m not a fool, I just love that you’re dead inside, no matter how much soulful warbling’s going on, it all seems a bit distasteful. Quite whether it’s going to be a problem, though, might well depend on how strong a stomach you have, or if you pay attention to the lyrics much - and admittedly it’s very easy to overlook them, given the musicality of their delivery, which renders everything into a thick soup of expertly glossy beats and vocal trills. 

Slightly more problematic for the continuation of the brilliant young talent narrative that, quite rightly, sprung up around his early material, are the rumours and counterclaims relating to his creative process; reports of his initial production collaborator getting thoroughly screwed over were brought back to mind with the angry claims of Portishead's Geoff Barrow that he had sampled their Machine Gun without permission on first single Belong To The World – presumably, going by Barrow’s claims, Tesfaye hasn’t quite gotten past the very different creative process behind mix-tapes and professional records (although it should perhaps be pointed out that, technically, the extra jazzy offbeat drum note that's been added here suggests it's an interpolation rather than an out and out sample). 

And more damaging still is the sense of bland uniformity throughout the album that that aforementioned production and general soupiness caused. While that voice is still downright angelic, it isn’t really until that half-inched drumbeat that anything else appears on the album to really rival it for the listener’s attention. It’s hard to say what’s more disappointing, that the best instrumental material here relies so heavily on the work of others, or that it’s then followed with the anaemic Drake collaboration Live For, a fairly forgettable bit of lunkheaded bonding between bros. So forgettable in fact, that Tesfaye hopes we won’t notice its melody’s subsequent recycling as the vocal hook in Kiss Land’s title track, where, just to make things worse, is paired with some of his more creepy lyrical sentiments (his come-ons to a female photographer going way beyond suspect into outright repulsive) and a rather queasy sample of a woman’s screaming, which all seems a bit unnecessary really; one wonders how many listeners never made it as far as the gorgeous neon-flecked wooziness of the vocal loop that drives the fairly lengthy track’s second half. Which pretty much sums up The Weeknd’s USP - at one moment comforting, like sinking into a warm bubble bath, at another leaving you feeling like you need a good shower to get the stink off. 

Things would be much simpler if Tesfaye, for all his disgusting chauvinism, wasn’t so disgustingly talented. If we chose to ignore him until he went away and grew up a bit, we’d miss out on the so many moments of staggering beauty (the vocal leaps that he performs in Wanderlust’s chorus really have to be heard to believe). But while this leap into the big leagues proves that he’s still very much a rare talent, it unfortunately seems that genuine inspiration is even rarer.