The Weeknd disappoints on major label debut ‘Kiss Land’

Alexander McCall

On the 2011 single “What You Need,” Abel Tesfaye – better known as avant-R&B act The Weeknd – croons “He’s what you want. I’m what you need.” 

On “Pretty,” a track off The Weeknd’s major label debut album released this month, “Kiss Land,” Tesfaye sings, “He can’t make you feel this pretty.”

On the surface, they’re similar sentiments. The difference is that “What You Need” also scans as desperation. In the nihilistic world of The Weeknd’s first mixtape “House of Balloons,” satisfying psychological needs seems mandatory.

In the world of “Kiss Land,” there’s no urgency. The narrator in “Pretty” focuses on hollow aesthetics rather than emotional connection. 

This shallow materialism was present in The Weeknd’s acclaimed 2011 mixtapes, but it was countered by sparkling, energetic production and impressive storytelling.

Both of these aspects have been left behind with the project’s shift to a major label. Tesfaye isn’t telling stories anymore; he’s detailing his graphic obsessions with little or no justification. It doesn’t help that his old producer, Illangelo, has essentially been replaced by copycats.

It’s true that “Kiss Land” retains much of the dark, textured atmosphere that made those mixtapes fascinating, but it comes at the price of feeling and innovation.

Most of these tracks glide by on crisply produced drum patterns and huge washes of synths and guitars. The album wants to be grand and cinematic but ends up numb and uncomfortable.

“Belong to the World” cribs Portishead’s “Machine Gun” beat but drains it of all menace. “Wanderlust” shoots for mutant disco but quickly loses steam.

The confessional two-part title track seems like it should work; the first part sports a glittering, processed hook while the second part amps up the song’s shockingly literal depravity.

Where past Weeknd songs made this two-part structure engaging and effortlessly cool, “Kiss Land” is just creepy and lackluster. It’s telling that Tesfaye ends the song with, “This ain’t nothing to relate to, even if you tried.” It begs the question: Why make art at all if you don’t want people to engage with it?

It’s a shame that “Kiss Land” is a disappointment, but fans of The Weeknd and other strains of underground R&B shouldn’t lament yet. Tesfaye is obviously talented and has released an incredible amount of music for a young artist, and that says nothing about his peers Frank Ocean and Miguel, who’ve arguably broken more ground than he has.

Hopefully, Tesfaye will heed his own call that he “belongs to the world” and leave behind the self-obsession that immediate success seems to have provoked in him.

Rating: One-and-a-half out of five stars.

REVIEW: COLIN MOORE, Senior A&E Reporter