Abel Tesfaye has a beautiful voice—and a twisted spirit. Recording under the name the Weeknd, the 23-year-old Toronto musician with the glorious pipes traffics in what might be called R&B or soul, except those genres suggest a smoother, more loving tone than his tracks embody. Whether it’s the music of Motown, Al Green or Michael Jackson, we’ve become accustomed to thinking of black romantic pop as the sound of seduction and finesse: When Marvin Gaye sings about getting it on, his sexual appetite is portrayed as warm and inviting, not cold and disturbing. The Weeknd takes that tradition and makes it more urgent and desperate, turning copulation into little more than an acting out of power dynamics and self-loathing. And yet his albums—including his latest, the powerfully atmospheric Kiss Land—are like a siren’s call. Who knew bad sex and pointless one-night stands could be so alluring?
The Weeknd came out of nowhere in early 2011 with his first mixtape, House of Balloons, which popped up on lots of critics’ year-end lists. Building off samples from Beach House, Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and the Banshees, House of Balloons delivers a moody collection that replaces the usual themes of love songs—getting the girl, losing the girl—with sentiments such as those of “High for This,” in which the singer convinces his partner to get stoned before they have sex. (“Don’t be scared,” he tells her, “I’m right here.”) Sultry tracks about visiting a prostitute (“Wicked Games”) and getting off on druggy decadence (“House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”) recast R&B as a nightmarish netherworld of permanent afterparties filled with freaks.
In quick succession, the Weeknd sent out two more mixtapes (Thursday and Echoes of Silence), which weren’t as compelling but nonetheless cemented his commitment to the dark side of romance and youthful abandon. Adding to his appeal as a man more comfortable in the shadows, he refused interview requests. “In the beginning, I was very insecure,” he recently admitted to Complex. “I hated how I looked in pictures. I just fucking hated this shit, like, crop me out of this picture right now. I was very camera shy. People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend. The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing…it reminded me of some villain shit.”
Born in Canada of Ethiopian descent, the Weeknd rarely ventured outside his Toronto hometown and claims to have never been on an airplane “before two or three years ago.” Not surprisingly, there’s a claustrophobic denseness to his trio of early mixtapes, which were officially released through Universal Republic at the end of last year as Trilogy; it has since gone platinum. But from the sounds of his latest record, Kiss Land, the newfound success and critical acclaim have done nothing to improve his outlook or nocturnal activities. Nobody would want his or her daughter to date the Weeknd, but for an hour it’s fun to live inside the singer’s troubled mind.
Kiss Land continues the Weeknd’s tradition of writing autobiographically—“Kiss Land is me doing the things I did in Trilogy in different settings,” he has said. It’s also an extension of those mixtapes’ style. He doesn’t just profess his love for his idols, he brilliantly steals from them, copping Michael Jackson’s falsetto, Prince’s adventurousness and R. Kelly’s neuroses. But he’s also part of a crop of recent performers who are constructing something new from that foundation.
Modern R&B has grown more introspective and individualistic, with artists such as D’Angelo and Erykah Badu exploring deep grooves and intimate details to bend a genre’s limitless pleasures to their personal obsessions. Another contemporary touchstone, the 2008 breakup album 808s & Heartbreak,found Kanye West embracing a more despairing, minimalist sound to express profound melancholy. In turn, Heartbreak’s daring insularityinspired Drake’s Take Care (co-produced by the Weeknd, whom Drake helped champion) and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which have continued this tradition of R&B and hip-hop acts drawing from indie rock, pop and soul to create more vibrant, fluid soundscapes.
If the Weeknd’s peers have transformed R&B into what New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones aptly describes as “America’s confessional booth,” then the Weeknd is the one who most needs his sins forgiven. It’s not just the drugs and random sex populating Kiss Land that place the singer’s soul in need of saving—it’s his seeming indifference to his decadent lifestyle. There’s little interest in true love or redemption in these songs, and his attitude toward the women who cross his path is, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, disgusting. But because he wraps his debauchery in such gorgeous music, the listener is seduced instead of repulsed.
Part of the secret is his voice. Graceful, vulnerable, able to reach the same high register as Maxwell, that voice could make millions hawking saccharine lover-man ballads. Instead, on Kiss Land it’s used to coldly examine the life of astripper on the opening track, “Professional,” in which the Weeknd observes, “Now you’ve got it made / Getting rich to the drums of your favorite song… / Your freedom was here in this cage all along / How did you drain all the soul from your eyes?” This is asked not with contempt but with nonchalance, the track’s silky keyboards and electronic beats recalling the shimmering alienation perfected by 1990s trip-hop acts such as Massive Attack and Tricky. Ignore the lyrical content and the Weeknd’s voice conjures up all sorts of romantic and wistful feelings—it sounds as though he’s singing love songs. But zoom in on the words and it tells a different story.
It’s nothing new for a musician to sell listeners a vision of wickedness that they can live through vicariously. Gangster rap and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction peddled depravity and lawlessness with a dollop of fantasy. But by comparison, the Weeknd doesn’t glorify his late-night creeping—he just treats it as grim reality. “Good girls go to heaven / And bad girls go everywhere,” he tells his latest fuck buddy on the deceptively bouncy dance track “Wanderlust.” “Tonight I will love you / And tomorrow you won’t care.” And woe is the lover who thinks he’s in search of something more long-term. “They’re in love with this idea of love,” he says of the women he sees around him. “It’s a shame that they’ll believe it will come.”
In Kiss Land’s stark environment, deception and power plays dominate. Throughout, the Weeknd is either confronting a new hookup or revisiting a past fling, and consequently the songs are filled with people desperately trying to protect their emotions so the other person can’t hurt them. Riding a staccato percussion sample from Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” “Belong to the World” finds the Weeknd talking to yet another hooker, one he’s starting to have feelings for. But their bond is an odd one: “I’m not a fool / I just love that you’re dead inside / I’m not a fool / I’m just lifeless too / But you to taught me how to feel / When nobody ever would / And you taught me how to love / What nobody ever could.” When he’s not dabbling in prostitutes, he’s reflecting on women he left behind when he went on tour. On “Adaptation,” he wonders about someone who might have been a worthwhile girlfriend if he had just stayed. But there’s no regret: “I chose the lie / I chose the life / Then I realized / She might have been the one / I let it go / For a little fun / I made a trade / Gave away our days / For a little fame / Now I’ll never see your face / But it’s okay / I adapted anyway.”
In the Weeknd’s world, every interaction is simply a way to get what you want sexually and leave the other person wanting more. The title track, which incorporates female horror-movie screams and Halloween vibes, opens with “When I got on stage / She swore I was six feet tall / But when she put it in her mouth / She can’t seem to reach my…,” the lewd lyric dissolving into another scream. On “Live For,” he’s miserable about being sober and looking forward to his next chance to go out on the town: “Kissing bitches in the club / They wanna threesome, then some / Spend whatever come in, fuck an income.”
“The album is about what young men think but will never say out loud,” he told MTV recently. “I’ve learned to pretty much not give a shit, and it kind of morphed into this sound and it works.” It’s that candor that has made his music so fascinating: There isn’t an internal filter on his lyrics, and what comes forth is a cavalcade of hedonism and self-loathing that isn’t concerned with alienating his latest potential conquest. And while he’s wrong that Kiss Land reflects the mindset of the average 20-something male—most of us didn’t have his fame, money or predilection for call girls—it does tap into a postadolescent anxiety that makes sex and drugs much easier to obtain than romantic stability. Most of us grow out of that stage, but it’s possible he never will.
There aren’t a lot of outright singles on Kiss Land; seven of the 10 tracks stretch over five minutes as the Weeknd broods in his despondent yet sexy soundscapes. He’s not trying to justify his worldview, but he does want to make sure the scope of its craving and persistent dissatisfaction is understood. The Weeknd may come across as a bit of a pig, but he knows his milieu. Maybe too well. “This ain’t nothing to relate to / Even if you tried,” he sings at the end of “Kiss Land.” That might be a taunt, or it might be a warning. I’m not sure he even knows.
Photograph courtesy of Shubvirk/Wiki Commons