For a moment, the Weeknd almost lost us. It wasn't because of poor quality music — 2011's trio of mixtapes ("House of Balloons," "Thursday," "Echoes of Silence") that introduced the mysterious singer were, individually, compelling and progressive R&B albums. But three albums over nine months' time are enough to make any fanbase a little tired.
Since the end of 2011, Abel Tesfaye — the man behind the mask — took a break from this rapid-fire pace and finally got around to the more traditional roles of a musician, which he's long been avoiding: interviews, performing live and signing to a major label.
Republic released his mixtapes as the packaged "Trilogy" album last year. "Kiss Land," though, marks Tesfaye's first major label debut. The LP isn't a rehash of his mixtape series, but then again, it isn't a departure either; it allows listeners to refamilairize themselves with the Weeknd's aesthetic, which was striking and singular to begin with.
Sure he sings about what comes with the good life -- girls, money, and fame -- but he never gives the feeling that he's stunting. He digs deeper and finds a stark, cutting frankness about fame and its trappings; he sets those lyrics to soundscapes that evoke this world of loveless sexual exploits, rough comedowns, and existential dissatisfaction.
And hey, there's a great guest spot for his good guy pal Drake to lighten the mood, if only for a second. Here's Billboard's play-by-play of the Weeknd's long awaited proper debut.
The first song gives you an idea as to what you're in store for with "Kiss Land" -- blissfully hi-fi headphone candy that's not far from the Weeknd's mixtape trilogy, but with an added flair for the dramatic. "So you're somebody now, but what's a somebody in a nobody town?" Tesfaye asks, assuring he won't be getting sentimental with his subjects. The track slithers between varying R&B backdrops and textures, gaining momentum, and ending with some haunting strings. One track in, it feels like the Weeknd has already delivered a powerful mini-album.
2. "The Town"
"The Town" is a logical follow-up to "Professional," another dusky, midtempo musing from Tesfaye that reinvents itself several times over its five-minute runtime. This time, he's not playing the bad guy. "'You made me feel so good before i left on the road," he sings to a lost lover, whose absence leaves him tormented.
Here, the Weeknd sets out to see what he can do with his voice. "Adaptation's" beat builds momentum as it powers on, but Tesfaye's acrobatic leaps, from register to register, are the main selling point. He's singing about alcoholic models up all night, drinking away sadness, covering virtually all of his usual lyrical tropes in one fell swoop.
4. "Love In The Sky"
Speaking of the Weeknd's usual tropes, "Love In The Sky" is the album's most erotic slow jam on an album full of them, complete with NC-17 lyrics that don't leave much to the imagination.
5. "Belong To The World"
It feels like the first four songs of "Kiss Land" were simply building up to this moment. "Belong to the World" manifests around a skittering industrial beat that might sound a little familiar to fans of the influential UK triphop band, Portishead. That's because the percussion was sampled (illegitimately) from their 2008 track "Machine Gun," which got the Weeknd involved in a Twitter beef with the band's Geoff Barrow. Foul play or not, this song affirms the Weeknd has made significant progress from his mixtape trilogy; it's more muscular and direct -- exactly what you'd hope for on a major label debut.
6. "Live For" (Feat. Drake)
"This the shit that I live for, with the people I die for," sings Tesfaye, in a line of true crew love that's echoed by Drake in his guest spot, and sounds destined to be written across sepia-toned Tumblr photos. It's the perfect moment for a word from the man who first introduced the Weeknd to the music world; "Live For" inhabits a smoky nether-region between rap and R&B, which fits Drake's persona completely.
This song may not have the star power as one of Drake's, but it sounds more commercial than anything else on "Kiss Land," and anything the Weeknd's done yet, for that matter. With earlier slowly building songs, "Wanderlust" grooves along at a pop/rock pace, and proves that you can actually dance to a Weeknd track after all. He's a singer who often evokes Michael Jackson, but here, he imitates MJ's craft in more than vocal riffs. "Wanderlust" sounds directly inspired by something off "Thriller."
8. "Kiss Land"
On "Kiss Land," the album starts to devolve back from accessible to the haze of sprawling, contorting epics that it opened with. It's not a very structured song, but a long, linear rant that explores how Tesfaye's life changed since adopting the Weeknd alter ego: "I went from staring at the same four walls for 21 years to seeing the whole world in 12 months," he sings, lamenting how he's got a new crib but has been gone for so long, he can hardly remember what it looks like inside.
Tesfaye again gets confessional here, although he's back to the subject of girls. Over another winding beat that repeatedly coils and recoils, he revisits a past love with the simple plea, "You will never feel this beautiful."
10. "Tears In The Rain"
On the final track, Weeknd comes apart all over again. All the lyrical themes here -- things slipping away, everything feeling the same, and the titular tears in the rain -- bring feelings of doubt and nihilism that have characterized the Weeknd all along.