Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before. Canadian artist gains increased notoriety after having his music showcased on various blogs, releases a few critically acclaimed mixtapes and subsequently signs a major label deal while inadvertently challenging stereotypes of masculinity and class division. In this case, the artist in question would be Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye—Drake’s quasi-protégé and, for better or worse, a sort of R&B equivalent to Hip Hop’s self-proclaimed “Champagne Papi.”
While sharing Drake’s story of rising through the ranks of urban music’s blogosphere, Weeknd is actually cast more from the mold of Chris Brown and The-Dream. The aforementioned crooners serve as the falsettoed, bastard seedlings of R. Kelly (and to a lesser degree, Prince) insofar as mixing radio-friendly fare with explicit, raunchy lyrics. An insatiable appetite for sex, drugs and emoting powered Weeknd’s House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence. And in that regard, his official foray into retail follows suit.
But, make no mistake about it; the clear stars of Kiss Land are producers DannyBoyStyles and Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville. Tesfaye is listed as a co-producer, and this album surely fits the vision he laid out in one of his only interviews—telling Damien Scott of Complex that Kiss Land symbolized both tour life and “a terrifying place.” For someone labeled as an R&B singer, Weeknd, Quenneville and DannyBoyStyles rarely use any Soul or R&B touchstones. The trio borrows Portishead’s “Machine Gun” for “Belong To The World,” while also incorporating samples from The Police (“Adaptation”) and Emika (“Professional”) into the mix. This isn’t the cut and pasted, four on the floor EDM of yesteryear supplied by the Black Eyed Peas and David Guetta.
For his part, Weeknd serves as the R&B equivalent to adult actor James Deen. Behind the boyish charm lies the thinly veiled type of truly ratchet, disrespectful talk that leads directly to either a slap or coitus. Take the following lines from the title track:
“When I got on stage, she swore I was six feet tall / But when she put it in her mouth she can’t seem to reach my… / Ball, ball, ball / Ballin’ ain’t an issue for me, I’ll make a hundred stacks right back next week / Do it all again, I’m faded off the wrong thing, the wrong thing…”
Mixed in with the stellar production and pillow talk are plenty of lyrics about strippers, infidelity and pretty much every emotion in the book. For Weeknd fans, the juxtaposition between his lithe falsetto, the airy production and lyrics that detail bathroom sex (“The Town”) and a need for Adderall (“Kiss Land”) has been part of the appeal since House of Balloons. Listeners looking something rooted in traditional, testosterone-driven R&B may spontaneously spawn a pair of ovaries halfway through the talk about lost love, cupcaking strippers and feeling lifeless. But those not knowing what to expect after three mixtapes of similar material are most likely not checking for The Weeknd anyway.
By his own admission, Weeknd set out to create a product inspired by directors Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. What he ended up with was more along the lines of Eli Roth “torture porn.” None of which is to say Kiss Land is inferior. But it does say there are times when the lyrics vacillate between seventh grade locker room talk and a dime store Valentine’s Day card—raunchiness and profanity be damned. This album is a polished, lateral step with an accompanying barcode for Weeknd’s fans. And outsiders looking to understand his appeal are likely better off downloading the three mixtapes that preceded the album.