ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT MUSIC Pop & Hiss

Review: The Weeknd's 'Kiss Land' a rough, worthy place to visit

On the cover of the Weeknd's new record, "Kiss Land," singer Abel Tesfaye stares back with his face cocked upward. For a guy who spent 2011 (the year of his three free online albums) hiding his identity from the media, it's a profound about-face.

That look signals a new vulnerability for the Toronto experimental R&B singer on this remarkable album. He once hid behind a scrim of anonymous sex, drugs and emotional bleakness. But here's a young man fessing up to the pain that makes those dark nights so alluring.

The kickoff track "Professional" instantly shows where his major-label money went. Tesfaye and his producers have taken the template of his sound — close-miked falsettos, bleary synth pads and creeping drums — and upgraded it into a million-dollar horror-house of despairing anti-soul. "Love in the Sky" uses '80s power-ballad guitars to conjure that decade's coke-soaked emptiness. The acoustic guitars and hollowed-out bass on "Live For" feel like what R. Kelly might have written had the jury returned a guilty verdict in his sex-crimes trial.

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But more importantly, "Kiss Land" finds some wounded humanity in Tesfaye's controlled, quivering voice. "Pretty" takes the stock tale of touring's loneliness and estrangement and turns it inside out with a mix of forgiveness and entitlement toward his old flame. "Belong to the World" continues hip-hop and R&B's complicated affection for sex workers — Tesfaye's life as a closely-watched musician makes him empathetic to that life on a different kind of stage.

For an act founded in anonymity and reserve, it turns out the Weeknd's most convincing work of art is Tesfaye's own rollout as a star and storyteller. "Kiss Land" is a rough place to visit. But then again, when it comes to sex and loneliness, we've all been there.

The Weeknd

"Kiss Land"

XO/Republic

Three and a half stars (out of four)

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