Making successful outsider art comes with a ceiling, a point where an artist’s pariah persona eventually collides with the reality of critical praise and personal fame. The majority of such artists buckle under the cognitive dissonance, either buying into their own hype and taking themselves too seriously to produce the same quality of pre-fame, challenging, emotionally distinctive music (hello, Arcade Fire) or retreating away from the pressures and expectations of an audience wider than they’d ever thought possible (think Jeff Mangum or, more tragically, Kurt Cobain). It’s a tough conundrum: if an artist’s creative fuel lies in positioning him or herself against a mainstream culture or the typical conventions of genre, what happens when the mainstream pulls a hat-trick and embraces the outsider without any qualms or hesitation? Can the creative spirit of a deconstructionist or a contrarian ever survive that co-option?
Okay, let’s not get too carried away—yes, we’re reviewing a record made by the dude who once sang, “Got the walls kickin’ like they six months pregnant,” not a college paper on Foucault or even career outsiders like Lou Reed or Scott Walker. But the Weeknd made his name—and his stratospheric success and, one imagines, stacks and stacks of cash—by positioning himself both within and removed from the typical sexual fantasia of contemporary R&B. The mixtapes that comprised 2011’s Trilogy saw Abel Tesfaye pulling at the genre’s edges until they seemed newly elastic, amping up the dead-eyed stare at the heart of Top 40 R&B’s drug-soaked penetrate-a-thon and suffusing it with at least as much sadness and isolation as orgiastic thrill. In other words, he managed one of the most difficult tricks in an artist’s arsenal: he shifted our perspective on themes tired and familiar enough they’d become practically invisible, freshly revealing the disgusting hedonism and misogyny at the heart of contemporary R&B and its culture.
Of course, Tesfaye’s songs also glorified life, liberty, and the pursuit of ejaculation as much as they implicitly lamented it. It was just harder to buy into the appeal of living from bedroom to bedroom and mountain of coke to mountain of coke when his narrators were so pained and unfulfilled and the music itself so smudged and at turns thickly isolating or sneeringly aggressive. A public hungry for new ideas and new textures devoured his subtly revolutionary formula with the appetite of Tony Montana’s flared nostrils. In response to their loves and demands, he showed his smiling face in publicity photos. He toured sold-out venues worldwide. He let Drake have a song. He did a track with Wiz Khalifa, for some reason. In other words, he became the sort of jetsetting, pill-popping fuckboy he’d viewed with equal parts envy and disdain on House of Balloons, still his best record—and the only one made before he became aware of his own capital rather than merely his own promise.
It was still possible Kiss Land, his first proper LP, would see Tesfaye again subverting expectations to brilliant results. (And, yes, Kiss Land is being released on a major label—one imagines the only people who enjoy cocaine as much as the people in Tesfaye’s songs are major label A&R reps.) Instead, it cements the idea—boring even in itself—that quick success leveled Tesfaye’s creative potential, at least for the time being. A mostly joyless stretch of overlong and undercooked material, the record sounds like a mainstream artist biting the Weeknd’s style. And, in a way, that’s exactly what it is.
There are redeemable moments here: opener “Professional” lurches with the same late-night sheen of his best material, “The Town” offers simple pop pleasures without compromising its heady atmosphere, and “Tears in the Rain” ingratiates with an insistent beat and stellar vocal performance. Unfortunately, those three tracks bookend the album, leaving a sprawling swath of half-baked hooks and hamfisted cinematic production between them. You may find bits of pleasure in each song, but the engaging moments are almost always overwhelmed by the dull or worse. About that “worse”—Tesfaye’s lyrics here border on self-parody when they don’t jump with both feet into that territory. “Kiss Land” opens with a line worthy of Robin Thicke: “When I got onstage, she swore I was six feet tall, / But when she put it in her mouth, she couldn’t seem to reach my – .” I’m not editing for content; Tesfaye cuts himself off, as if even he couldn’t stomach the joke. What, no hashtag? Elsewhere, his overexcited delivery ruins the record’s best beat—the mournful acoustic pluck of “Live For”—and the track’s guest verse from Drake makes the same error in judgment, opting for rapid-fire boasting rather than the red-eyed malaise that made the pair’s work together on “The Zone” so indelible.
It bears mentioning that the Weeknd, before Kiss Land, was never just Abel Tesfaye. His producer, Illangelo (aided by Doc McKinney and, to a contested extent, Zodiac), had at least as much to do with Trilogy’s success and vision, his knack for wrapping Tesfaye’s velvet croon in negative space, reverb, and stoned synths responsible for the mixtapes’ signature sound. Illangelo is absent here, replaced by DannyBoyStyles and others, who isn’t up to the task of expanding Tesfaye’s palate. He tries, and it’s easy to catch the way Kiss Land attempts to turn Trilogy’s afterparty ennui into a big screen, on-the-road, b-movie melodrama (something like Only God Forgives, with even less of a plot). Still, the punches seem half-pulled, and the production glides by without much of an impact. The most interesting work comes on a bonus track, “Odd Look”, which pairs Tesfaye with French electro-house revivalist Kavinsky to fantastic results. Kavinsky, whose “Nightcall” seemed so perfectly engineered for the film Drive that Nicolas Winding Refn may as well have built the entire movie around that slice of sinister robo-pop, knows how to bring the touch of surreal futurism to Tesfaye’s music that the rest of Kiss Land tries so hard to evoke. Without the cohesive vision of a producer like Kavinsky or Illangelo, the Weeknd can’t seem to see past his own navel. The good news for Abel Tesfaye might be that audiences don’t necessarily expect much more from their R&B stars than a smooth voice and dirty mouth. It just seemed like he wanted to be so much more.