When he first hit the music blogosphere in 2010, Abel Tesfaye was shrouded in mystery. His music was as detached as his identity. And although the artist behind the music was obscured and the subject matter dealt heavily in the idea of hiding behind drug abuse and hypersexuality, the actual sound of the music was remarkably clear. Doc McKinney’s production seemed to make every detail shimmer in what eventually stood out as some of the best R&B of 2011. Tesfaye’s three releases from 2011 eventually came together on 2012’s Trilogy, which, aside from a few new tracks thrown in, was nothing we hadn’t heard previously. Beyond its unavoidable similarity, Trilogy as an album seemed to overwhelm with its intense misanthropy. Plucking out certain songs, namely “The Morning,” “Wicked Games,” and “Next” emphasized the raw power Tesfaye possesses as an artist. Taken together, though? It’s a bit much.
So on his first “proper album,” The Weeknd reaches another level entirely. The general framework is still there, and Tesfaye definitely isn’t exploring new terrain in terms of subject matter here, but Kiss Land is weightier and more potent than any of Tesfaye’s previous releases. For an artist who already had a knack for packing his songs with sonic details, everything here sounds a bit crisper. The staggering keyboard of “The Town” just tears the songs to pieces and encapsulates all of the longing Tesfaye wishes to convey. The opener, “Professional,” is one of the most ethereal pieces Tesfaye has made (which is really saying something), and is just the beginning of Tesfaye repeatedly sounding like one of his clear influences: Michael Jackson. The “new Michael Jackson” label is always a bit ridiculous, especially when anointed to the likes of Ne-Yo and Usher, but the trademark MJ vocal fragility is all over this album. Even more crazy are the Stevie Wonder similarities on the standout track, “Wanderlust.” Tesfaye clearly senses that “Wanderlust” is one of his most danceable tracks yet and double-dips by having Pharrell remix it later on in the album.
“Kiss Land,” the title track and first single, is long and lush, exhibiting some textures and sounds The Weeknd has never before dabbled in. Even if this may sound paradoxical, much of this album is subtly fearless and “Kiss Land” helps exemplifies that fearlessness. Tesfaye is rarely afraid of taking his tracks just a bit too far, always keeping them grounded with the stunning production and his truly singular crooning. It makes for an album that stays in the rare space between being a “headphones album” as well as something that could be played at the club. Such fearlessness and versatility, coupled with very few misfires in terms of execution, adds up to what will undoubtedly be one of the most talked-about and lauded albums of the year.