The new Weeknd record, Kiss Land, brings out a lot about the earlier material that I hadn't seen before. I wrote about Abel Tesfaye 's earlier work at about this time last year, and I had nothing but good things to say. The Weeknd, I said, explored the limits of modern morality, a space that usually remains unconscious in pop music. It had the rush of transgression coded in the terms of modern pop. Murky, smug, and ruthless, the mixtape Trilogy was a rare naked gesture in pop.
Listening to Kiss Land reminded me that you can't write a story about decay, The Weeknd's story, without a sigh. In the Trilogy, a slightly younger Tesfaye wrote about MDMA and thuggish sexual encounters with the leer of a villain. There was a sense of loss, but the loss was hers; Tesfaye's stories were about a devilish character leading women into the pit where he stayed. This is why you had to wipe the slime off of you at the end of the tape. The Weeknd told an urban horror story set in skyscrapers and tucked away nightclubs. Pain and pills were passed around equally.
But Kiss Land reminded me that the core of this sort of predation was a sense of innocence. The self-awareness and sensitivity that it took to pen the emptiness on his earlier works came from a sense of ruination. The fact that Tesfaye had been hurt snuck through in places in the Trilogy, but nowhere did Tesfaye make it as explicit as he does on Kiss Land.
Tesfaye is still 23, and it's impossible to fathom his motives but I suspect that it's hard on a young kid making music like he does. In that light, it's unsurprising that Kiss Land veers into relatability consistently across its tracks. His insistence that "This ain't nothin' to relate to/Even if you tried" comes off as posturing at the end of a record full of human biography. An important element of this is ambience; rather than the thudding, nasty statements on the best parts of the Trilogy, the beats on Kiss Land sprawl for miles and shudder with dissonances that sound cribbed after the advent of Yeezus. This enhanced cinema lends Tesfaye some interesting widescreen spaces to play in at certain points during the record, but when you hear the eighties' guitar and the strumming straight out of Bad on "Wanderlust" one can't help but think that he got the wrong idea from the Miguel record.
Tesfaye tries for the debasement of his earlier work several times throughout Kiss Land. The result is thoroughly unpleasant, and not in an interesting way. Unmasked by its context, songs like the title track spin a dull story of seducing women using your fame and status. This breed of status-mongering "sexuality" looked boring and moronic on Mick Jagger and it is profoundly disappointing here. On the strongest moments of the Trilogy, Tesfaye wrote like a libertine. Here, he writes like the drummer from Poison.
It's appropriate that the only guest appearance on the record is by Drake. This is Tesfaye's play for mainstream acceptance, and it shows. He meets his OVOXO teammate halfway throughout the record; when Tesfaye tells a Marvin's Room-like story we're disappointed in a way that we're not when it comes from Drake. We know that Aubrey Graham is playing at his limits when he makes himself vulnerable for the microphone, but we thought that Abel had a much stronger range. When we hear him blabbing about the vicissitudes of success and wealth, it's like remembering that all of Tyler Durden's shirts were from Tommy Bahama. Kiss Land, as a weak moment, is a critical moment. It reminds us that for all of pop music's posturing, the glitter and gold of "success" make motherfuckers get cautious. Back in Toronto, Abel might still be a demon. In the limelight, he looks dressed up for Halloween.