Review Summary: Before The Balloons
Whether people like it or not, The Weeknd of the future will forever be condemned to comparison with the mixtape trilogy of 2011. This isn’t simply because they were such good albums, or even that they were so revolutionary in their sounds and themes within R&B; more importantly, they achieved these in such a way that the series seemed to exist outside the context of a creator. Really, what exactly was
“The Weeknd”? Just a pseudonym for Abel Tesfaye? A group name for him and the multiple producers who contributed to the sound and music? Or a more subtle reference to the music itself - a mysterious, disembodied being with no celebrity obtruding its aim.
The assumption is the former, but it’s one of those niggling (and fading) mysteries that enveloped Abel Tesfaye from his breakout. After all, people would often (and still do) refer to the project in the plural, and despite the intense personality described within the music this entity would initially remain anonymous - and for even longer remain ambiguous. This shroud of mystery around the artist himself complemented the music’s own atmosphere, in its intoxicated production, hook-averse melodies and passionate – bordering on obsessive – lyrics, hidden behind the veil of a deceivingly pretty voice. Add in the beautifully uniform artwork - matching the themes of the music - and the package was complete. After that, this perfect balance would always have been practically impossible to uphold, since the fame of the ‘Abel Tesfaye’ part of The Weeknd and the record contract would inevitably come to the fore and drain the mystery.
What makes Kiss Land
in particular even easier to compare to the mixtapes is that it isn’t really an attempt to reboot The Weeknd into ground more befitting Tesfaye’s new stardom anyway. This is partly a relief, especially given the sudden turn into accessibility taken with Trilogy
, but The Weeknd has still lost something. Abel Tesfaye himself hasn’t helped this, with the revelation of his treatment of initial collaborator Jeremy Rose and the recent controversy regarding his unauthorised use of the Portishead sample on “Belong To The World” both damaging the image which was so crucial to The Weeknd’s success back in 2011. But it’s also in the music. The lyrics have crossed the delicate line from intensely lusting (even the most sexual lines on “Initiation” made artistic sense) to downright sleazy (‘I might *** around, bring your whole crew on tour/*** around, turn you to my west coast girl
’). The production (created without long-time collaborator Illangelo) sometimes attempts complexity and prettiness but is ultimately thin and weak, never recreating something like the hangover feeling on “The Knowing”, Thursday
’s faded atmosphere, the bass motif on The Fall
, the intense desire on the dreamy “What You Need”, or really anything which comes close to the vital part the production played on the mixtapes. More focus is placed on the vocals and they don’t particularly offer anything more than before.
The title track reaches furthest, with its captivating melody and bi-part progressive structure evoking the vibe of tracks like “House of Balloons - Glass Table Girls” and “XO/The Host”, and it does achieve a certain degree of grit and murky atmosphere, but even this is only a shadow of those tense narratives of deep-night happenings in underground Toronto. “Professional” also shows promise, with the oh-so delicate effect on Tesfaye’s voice sounding like it could shatter at any moment, and the underlying bassline creating some suspense too. Both “Love In The Sky” and “Tears In The Rain” are pretty enjoyable tracks as well, but even they don’t recapture the magic of before. “Belong To The World” has an ok melody, but it feels like Portishead’s Machine Gun sample was forced in just to invoke some kind of depth. It works a little bit - it’s certainly the best part of the song - but you’re still left begging for Clams Casino or Illangelo to jump out, rip up the carpet and pump the room full of smoke. Much of the time the music’s just boring, but at worst you have the cheesy “Wanderlust” or “Live For”, where with help from Drake the two manage to destroy any remaining sense of continuity or atmosphere (‘This is *** that I live for/This is *** that I live for/This is *** that I live for
’ – seriously?); even on “The Zone” Drake managed to make his nasally style of rapping fit in with the tone of the music.
It’d be unfair to completely dismiss Kiss Land
. It still has something slight left to offer and it doesn’t seem Abel Tesfaye totally
wanted to abandon the roots of his success. The threaded Japanese theme is a nice touch, albeit a frustratingly undeveloped one, and with the exception of the one Drake feature he’s kept that sense of isolation and inner focus in not letting the whole label crew come in and piss all over the place. He hasn’t gone all the way back to the pop R&B he was making before House of Balloons
and there’s still some kind of an attempt to create that dank and sorrowful atmosphere. But the spark’s gone. Where House of Balloons
presented disembodied immaturity, Thursday
animalistic desire and Echoes of Silence
intense anxiety, Kiss Land
feels much less like ‘The Weeknd’ and more just ‘Abel Tesfaye’ - a story of fame and rock and roll and ***ing groupies rather than a delicate one of repressed emotions and inner emptiness which, in having no face to it, felt so much more relatable and enthralling. When it does try to mimic the mixtapes’ sound it creates something pretty and intricate but ultimately shallow, superficial and purposeless. Enjoy him while you still can, because The Weeknd is being lost to the bright lights and fame.