Three years ago, The Weeknd was an elusive mystery. Aside from a couple of songs posted on a YouTube account under the name The Weeknd, which went viral through various music blogs and artists’ Twitters (such as Drake’s), no one exactly knew whom he was or when an album was dropping. This anonymity was engaging — and not simply because everyone was on a race to discover his identity. His anonymity made his songs about addiction, drug abuse and lost love all the more personal as he stood as a shadowy figure in contrast to a world that attempts to capture and record every moment.
A lot has changed for Abel Tesfaye (also known as The Weeknd). With his anonymity gone, a critical part of Tesfaye’s aesthetic is slowly disappearing. His new album, Kiss Land, acknowledges his evolution into a public figure. And although Kiss Land is his debut studio album, it faces the inevitable challenge of overcoming the sophomore slump after Trilogy, a compilation of critically acclaimed mixtapes that came out last year.
Kiss Land overcomes this slump by maintaining the perfect balance of change and stagnation. Tesfaye’s voice work is still incredible, and his production is still immensely elegant. But interwoven is a distinct off-kilter, almost dystopian Japanese aesthetic that defines much of the album, as seen in the music video for “Kiss Land.” In “Kiss Land,” Tesfaye is in a foreign place aesthetically different from Quebec, and its culture as shown in his mixtapes, but his narcissistic, self-abusive lifestyle is ever present. Even with the veil of anonymity gone and his image reconstructed, Tesfaye remains the same tragic figure, no matter where he goes.
Kiss Land is more of the same high-quality R&B expected from Tesfaye. But it’s the production of Kiss Land, mixed with the retention of the themes central to Trilogy, that make Kiss Land an intense debut studio album. No matter how Tesfaye evolves, he is still the same self-destructive, brilliant character.