Icy and distant, the Weeknd’s first three mixtapes made valuable tweaks to familiar R&B formulas, pushing the genre’s debauchery to dissipated levels, locating a kernel of deficiency and self-loathing in sex-fueled narratives of abuse and abandon. Yet another disciple of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak aesthetic, singer-producer Abel Tesfaye turned usual notions of virility upside down, with sexual fantasies that served as confirmation of internal deadness rather than hot-blooded mastery. So it’s no surprise that Tesfaye’s newfound success, rather than giving him occasion to boast or celebrate, makes him sound even more miserable. It’s also not too surprising, considering the troubling tendencies of his previous work, that Kiss Land makes for a generally brutal, misogynistic listen, though the level this cruelness reaches is unexpected, as is the overall slackness of the music.
Opening with the wispy “Professional” and moving through various tales of depravity and disappointment, the album establishes a lyrical pattern: Adrift and on tour, Tesfaye’s narrators lash out at the women in their lives, be they unfaithful girlfriends at home (“Pretty”), dithering teases (“The Town”), or the groupies he seems to encounter on a daily basis (nearly every track). This is all enveloped in a general smear of self-loathing, but the propensity to extend that disgust to other parties, and the general conception of female sexuality as something nasty and poisonous, grows intensely disturbing as Kiss Land progresses. It doesn’t help that the album also scraps most of the experimental novelty of the Weeknd’s mixtapes, settling for a system of cold, glacially paced tracks, with few moments that feel new or exciting.
Misogynist elements have always been preset in Tesfaye’s work, but it was also possible to imagine such songs as critiques, the natural consequence of a musician both fixated on casual sex and repelled by the feelings it inspires. On Kiss Land, the balance tilts too far toward the former, partly since the laundry list of dead-end encounters has been replaced by a single chronicle of disillusionment, an artist discovering the capacity of success to extend and deepen those feelings of inadequacy. Yet the music is never up to the conceptual task, and the album too often settles for numbing backdrops, with songs like “Belong to the World” and “Wanderlust” resembling wan impersonations of Bad-era Michael Jackson.
Meanwhile, even dynamic songs like “Kiss Land” are irredeemably creepy, with the depiction of sexual favors granted in exchange for the chance to bask in Tesfaye’s gloomy glow. It’s possible to see where Tesfaye is coming from here, attempting to present the rite of mechanical backstage sex of touring life as another soul-sapping process, and his inability to find love as a parallel to a failure to find secure contentment in anything. But this angle comes off as distressingly reductive, portraying women as devices, the equivalent of a joint or a handful of pills as fodder for self-destruction. This doesn’t necessarily change when fellow miserabilist Drake comes along on standout “Live For,” but the guest rapper’s far-less-mopey energy lights up the track, exhibiting an added dynamism that could have elevated the rest of this material. There are comparable strong moments throughout, but the overall effect is deadening, and the persistent presentation of sexual denigration seems more and more like an inherent condition of this dark, gloomy music than any kind of running commentary on genre peccadilloes.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect more from Tesfaye, considering the ingrained, sneakily misogynistic strains present in most R&B, with women functioning as passive conquests and excuses to brag about sexual prowess, but the nastiness exhibited toward these theoretical ladies goes beyond the pale. Whereas R. Kelly couches chauvinistic attitudes in cartoonish excess, the portrayals here are malicious and grim, to the point where any depiction of misogyny for self-lacerating purposes and the more general reductive treatments of women become hopelessly muddled. And while there’s something to be said for exposing unhealthy norms, there’s also the perhaps misplaced expectation that, since Tesfaye is releasing material that’s more sonically progressive, the lyrical outlook might follow suit. The problem with Kiss Land is that it fails on both fronts, presenting a musically static album that’s also disturbingly backward on gender issues, with a sustained focus on degradation that no longer seems anything but vile.