Classic case of an artist who has no idea what the differences between a mixtape and an album are.
In comparison to his contemporary R&B contemporaries (sorry, that’s a mouthful), the Weeknd has always had benefitted from a vocal range that surpass others, and singing over a cinematic vision of the future not only made him a flagship to the re-emergence of the genre, but one of the freshest things that has happened to it. That’s where my praise ends though. The-Dream, who always gets summoned in comparison, has been mining the same lyrical well as Abel Tesfaye (sex and drugs), but while he’s never achieved mainstream success through his own name, The-Dream has an intimate understanding of what the mainstream wants (see Rihanna’s “Umbrella” or Justin Bieber’s “Baby”). Yesteryear’s Channel Orange, despite all its flaws, was easily loveable, thanks to Frank Ocean’s humanity, explored through the romances of “Thinkin’ Bout You” or “Forrest Gump,” or through relatable subject matter as on “Super Rich Kids.” And while Frank Ocean’s production team isn’t doing anything particularly innovative, he often relied on an unseen sparseness in the genre to help carry his voice and message.
The Weeknd has neither of these qualities. Tracks on Kiss Land have decidedly long runtimes, but unlike Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience from earlier this year, very few of these gestate. “Live For” (a.k.a. “Crew Love” part 2), surprisingly does, despite being the shortest track on the album, while “Kiss Land” can be separated into two distinct sections, but that’s nothing we haven’t heard before if you’ve been following his discography so far (see: “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” or “XO / The Host”). Meanwhile, the Weeknd has no idea of what sparseness means. Case in point is “Belong to the World,” which manages to sidestep being sued by Portishead for illegally using the “Machine Gun” sample by recreating it, speeding it up and filling in any rests. It sounds like what Lupe Fiasco did with “Float On”’s guitar on “The Show Goes On” two years ago. In other words, it reeks of laziness, doesn’t come close to touching the original, and makes me want to listen to a better song. But it’s not just that: remember the earworming melodies of House of Balloons? Well those are gone; the hooks in Kiss Land are laughably hookless, and it’s especially hilarious to hear Tesfaye awkwardly run through as many words as he possibly can on the hooks of both “Live For” or “Kiss Land.”
The lyrics suck. “Belong to the World” has a chorus, “Domesticate you / But you belong to the world,” that sounds like he missed the controversy around Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” when he stole the chorus (and his delivery doesn’t have Thicke’s wild inflection either). “Wanderlust,” which follows the recent disco infatuation following Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” has lyrics that are just as dumb but pretend to be something more (“You’re in love with something bigger than love / You believe in something stronger than trust / Wanderlust).” “Kiss Land” opens with the line, “When I got on stage, she swore I was six feet tall,” which is fine by itself but unfortunately, the narrative is lost when he forces a rhyme on it that has nothing to do with the previous line, “But when she put it in her mouth she can’t seem to reach my (ball, ball, ball).” Our friends over at rapgenius have graciously annotated this line for us, “A very interesting way to suggest he is large below the belt, making up for what he lacks in height.” I guess deep throat references from typical porn scenes are what passes as interesting these days. You could counter that every song in Trilogy dealt with drugs and sex in unsubtle manners, but there were traces of humanity (“The Birds Part 1,” “Rolling Stone,” and “Echoes of Silence”) to be found. On Kiss Land? Nothing. He’s so proud that he’s the Weeknd that he tells us “This ain’t nothing to relate to / Even if you tried, you tried, you tried” over and over (and over again).
The good stuff? Well, hearing his voice shoot upwards to say the title in “Wanderlust” is enough to make me forgive its stupidity; “The Town” has a piano-aided climax that sounds like the pianist slammed his hands on the keys repeatedly, it’s worth hearing at least once (but is never worth the 5-minute price of admission ever again); “Kiss Land”’s first half is shaded by woman’s screams that shows that he hasn’t completed forsaken the violent undertones that he experimented with on his last two mixtapes; “Pretty” might go on for a lot longer than needs be thanks to its useless outro, but it features a harmonic prowess that we haven’t heard from him yet. In his first (ever) interview with complex before Kiss Land’s release, he talked a lot about self-criticism, “I’m all about evolution. I’m the first person to judge myself. I listen to my music and I’ll be like, “This is shit” […] You’re bound to find flaws and repetition when you come out with three albums in one year. At that point I was very cavalier; I didn’t give a shit. Some people realize it and some don’t. Me, I’m very critical.” That’s a lot of bullshit. There were no changes between his three mixtapes and the money-charging compilation of them (barring some sample issues and some track order readjustments). Moreover, all the faults from his mixtapes extend to Kiss Land. Except here, there are no strengths that we can use to overlook them.