By Jackson Howard, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 10, 2013
The Weeknd had already released three critically acclaimed and, with the repackaged edition titled Trilogy, commercially successful album-quality projects in an eight-month span in 2011. Still, being that it is backed by a major label, Kiss Land serves as his official debut.
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The most stark difference, however, between Kiss Land and the 30 songs contained on Trilogy is not The Weeknd’s subject matter or vocals, but the production. On House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, The Weeknd worked extensively with producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney to create a hazy, mysterious, bone-chilling sound that was as much the producer’s work as it was The Weeknd’s. On Kiss Land, The Weeknd decided to bring in a new group of producers; the reasoning as of now remains unclear. What is clear, though, is The Weeknd’s evolution. Kiss Land, as The Weeknd stated during his press run, was greatly inspired by the classic dystopian 1980s film “Blade Runner,” and more than likely his new artistic vision didn’t mesh with the McKinney/Illangelo style of old — a tragedy considering the pure magic the three managed to create on past projects.
While the production on Trilogy was glum, R&B-tinged despair, the production here is schizophrenic, filled with erratic strings and echoing drums that certainly recall Harrison Ford battling replicants. Trilogy was a young man discovering himself in the context of his hometown of Toronto, and though Kiss Land contains the same angst and desperation, it centers on The Weeknd’s time on the road, playing more like an audible horror movie in the style of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. “I went from starin’ at the same four walls for 21 years / To seein’ the whole world in just 12 months” he sings on the title track, and this transition — of home to tour, of anonymity to fame — rings free throughout Kiss Land.
Though the sounds have changed, the subject matter remains generally the same. On opening track “Professional,” The Weeknd sings to one of his favorite subjects, a stripper, the track panting “I love…” over and over in deathbed-sounding breaths. The first highlight of the album, though, comes on “The Town,” which, ironically, is the only song not about tour life. Syncopated claps and heavy bass carry his floating vocals, which tell a story of a woman who leaves him and ultimately comes back. The best part, though, is the traumatically distorted breakdown — reminiscent of a glockenspiel — in between verses that jolts the song alive, proving that while The Weeknd has strayed from his classic R&B sound, he can still recognize good music when it presents itself.
The subject matter, as in past projects, does get tired after a couple listens. Lost women, drugged-up nights and loneliness on the road permeate the record, making filler songs like “Pretty” expendable. The production doesn’t help in this sense, as the industrial drums and reverbing synths do as much to make the album cohesive as they do to blur it all together.
Still, tracks manage to stick out. The excellent “Belong to the World” is as close to a magnum opus as The Weeknd has ever been. Over a well-placed Portishead sample and bounding guitar, The Weeknd brings his old themes of isolation, sex and money onto a bigger stage. “I’m not a fool / I just love that you’re dead inside / I’m not a fool, I’m just lifeless too” he oozes in one of his most vulnerable moments. “Wanderlust” features a similar lyrical growth, finding The Weeknd lamenting about the girls he encounters on the road.
“Live For,” a collaboration with Drake, comes off unfortunately flat.