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.
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.
Three and a half stars (out of four)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times