Sound — 7
The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, is the next big thing and saviour of R&B, or at least that's what his fans and friends in the industry would have you believe. Their view is not without merit. When you see something tagged as R&B today, it denotes white corporations paying black artists to play for white audiences, collapsing a significant part of music history into othered commercial pop; it's no small matter, therefore, that one of its rising stars is casting a wide creative net while he goes about it. The Guardian's Hermione Hoby got it exactly right when she said that The Weeknd's "hipster R&B" was informed by a "mutually enriching dialogue" with the indie scene and its modest solemnity. Two years ago, he used a trilogy of self-released mixtapes to set an adventurous range of modern production techniques to soft-soul vocals and hazy beats which were more James Blake than Justin Timberlake. "Kiss Land," though, takes the next logical step and comes prepared for the spotlight. The foreboding rumble of "Professional" sets a serious agenda at the outset, but the beats quickly diversify and form different permutations of slow, sensual jamming. Though there are few immediate hooks to latch onto, the drum machines and melodic synths driving "Adaptation" and "Love in the Sky" are polished enough to give "Kiss Land" a broader sonic appeal than its three predecessors. "Live For" has star quality too, with Canadian megabrand Drake lending a few verses of gold-plated rap to his friend's ode to the touring lifestyle. If you're up to date with your pop news then you'll know that Mr. Tesfaye faces a potential lawsuit for sampling Portishead's "Machine Gun" without permission on follow-up single "Belong to the World" - it's a shame, because he puts the Bristolian's beat to excellent use. Plunged into darkness by the rapid-fire snare, the atmospheric strings and dense bass are given consummate urgency and spectacle. Arguably the album's finest moment, though, comes on "Wanderlust." After a brief but ill-advised guitar solo wisely gives way to an upbeat pop jam, Tesfaye is finally allowed to reach for a big hook and return to it at his leisure. The refrains of "precious little diamond" and "wanderlust" form two brainworms you're highly likely to carry away with you when you leave "Kiss Land" for the first time.
Lyrics — 5
Here, however, is where we run into some problems. You see, "Kiss Land" may be his first major label album, but Abel's already been caned by sex and narcotics whilst waiting for the green light, and some of the attitudes he's picked up make for unpleasant reading. The shades of sadness and uncertainty are open to interpretation ("And you will never feel so pretty/and you will never feel this beautiful/when I make it there") but the way he handles women can be problematic. In one song, like rape-apologist-in-chief Robin Thicke, he yearns to "domesticate" a girl, but thinks better of it because she "belongs to the world." The insinuation is that she exists to serve sad, lonely men. That he counts himself among those men – these songs lack the hypermasculinity of most commercial R&B – is unfortunately of little significance. The emotions are real and honestly expressed, but when The Weeknd calls for a girl to "put that p-ssy in control," he's not looking to relinquish any power.
Overall Impression — 7
Just like its creator, "Kiss Land" is troubled and far from flawless, but sheer talent compensates for problems in both cases. The Weeknd is full of self-doubt which sometimes restricts his ability to go for the best melody, but pride in his music is left thoroughly intact. His vocals have a rare resonance, their delicacy often masking strong tunes, but his abilities are unevenly distributed across a handful of tracks. At the young age of 23 these are things that Abel Tesfaye can take time to work on, but at its best this album is already worthy of its inevitable success.