Zac Pennington is the founder and creative director of Comedienne, and was formerly the same for the pop group Parenthetical Girls. Once a salaried employee of several alternative weekly publications (The Stranger, Portland Mercury), his contemporary writing credits (VICE, The Quietus) consist almost entirely of undisciplined, undignified exercises in self-promotion. You can follow Zac on Twitter here.
“This ain’t nothin’ to relate to.”
Pop music has enough victims. I don’t mean to say that pop music itself is some kind of toxic malignancy — this goes without saying, of course — but that pop is, at its core, a self-pitying idiom. Besides love, sexual finagling, and all of the empty promises in-between, martyrdom is probably the most conventional vantage from which the message of pop music is voiced: the lovelorn and/or scorned miserablism that pleads with parting lovers, that nostalgizes, that skirts its own complicity, that’s been done wrong. It’s the earnest singer-songwriter, the wailing white soul singer, the “Nice Guy” indie-rocker. It’s needy and it’s clingy and even at its most apologetic and self-effacing, it rarely sees past the bridge of its own nose. As an acolyte of martyrdom, I recognize and appreciate why this is a necessary and useful paradigm — but as a student of pop music, it bores the shit out of me. This is why I like villains. The Weeknd — a character created and performed masterfully by 23-year-old Canadian r&b singer Abel Tesfaye — is such a villain.
For all of society’s fascination with evil, pop villainy is a surprisingly rare and exotic bird. Of course, pop music has a storied and equally compelling covert history of monstrosity, but what I’m talking about is evil that is articulated on camera — music that explores a point of view both knowingly and deliberately spiteful and mean-spirited. Though the landscape of contemporary pop celebrates its bad guys as much as it always has (from “Who Do You Love?” to hip-hop), I’m inclined to argue that the violence, misanthropy, and hedonism proffered by pop radio is more a manifestation of the antihero archetype than the villain — it’s a celebration of supremacy and entitlement more than it is of malice. But on 2011’s pretty much unfuckwithable trio of mixtapes, Tesfaye introduced us to the psyche of a self-loathing, repellent, and almost entirely unsympathetic pro(an-)tagonist — a character that perverts hip-hop’s decadence and egotism into something that’s neither celebratory nor attractive. Characteristic quotables like “Only girls that we fuck with seem to have 20 different pills in them” and “Don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me” — delivered exclusively in an angelic MJ-range between ethereal tenor and lilting falsetto — read less like boastful hedonism and more like a malevolent resignation. The Weeknd is a misanthropic nightmare filled with shame, self-contempt, and as many white drugs as it takes not to feel any of it. Anonymous conquests and narcotic indulgences are half-bragged and fully paranoid, every depraved, libidinous narrative an anesthetized and tedious obligation. For pop — a product that so often humbles itself to be sympathized and empathized with — a largely unrelatable narrator is a bold and fascinating gamble, and one that Tesfaye pulls off impressively.
Aided immeasurably by the cocoon-like, richly narcotized atmosphere created by producer Illangelo, the Weeknd’s mixtapes are immersive, simple yet opulent, tactile, and claustrophobic — an extraordinary achievement fresh out of the gate, and one whose circumstances are next to impossible to reproduce. Collected last year as the compilation Trilogy, the EPs represent in many ways the platonic ideal for musical engagement in the modern age. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, the EPs satisfied — with remarkable confidence — what critics and listeners have come to expect from their emerging stars: a self-contained universe that is at first blush comprehensible, effortless, and fully realized. It’s a brand of expectation that makes sophomore slump virtually inevitable: if you’re expected to create a world that’s watertight straight out of the gate, how do you do it again without breaking the hermetic seal, or starting from scratch?
With Kiss Land, the Weeknd’s major label debut and first proper album, Abel Tesfaye offers some intriguing — if not always successful — answers to that question. Having emerged from the secluded womb of real-life lofts, bedrooms and water closet stalls of Toronto over the past year, Kiss Land transposes the Gomorrah filter that so cynically colored Trilogy‘s fantasyland onto tales of life “on the road.” It’s an unfortunate lyrical trope, whose inaccessibility to an audience is the opposite of the sort at which the Weeknd excels — it’s cliché in place of fascinating novelty. More significantly, he’s left a sonic womb as well as a geographical one — trading in the signature ambiance of Illangelo in favor of the sharper, cinematic production of DannyBoyStyles. Tesfaye has cited John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott as Kiss Land‘s conceptual touchstones, and shadows of their collective influence form much of the sonic palate — the kind of icy, futurist synths familiar to fans of the directors’ signature films consume much of the record. It’s an attractive idea in abstract — one that seems to make explicit the Weeknd’s awareness of his role as dystopian monster — and though it sounds uniformly great, the production’s dry, glossy panorama makes much of Kiss Land a significantly less enveloping place than the Weeknd’s world of old. Absent Illangelo’s opiated vacuum, it’s up to our misanthropic protagonist to reconcile us to this new environment — to remind us what makes the character of the Weeknd so singular. And while Kiss Land is certainly ugly and desperate and contemptible, its villain just seems a little exhausted with himself. Even with jabs like “I just love that you’re dead inside,” “She grind hard ’til her teeth chip,” and — what might as well be Tesfaye’s thesis statement — “This ain’t nothin’ to relate to, even if you try,” the album’s deviancies are marred by a surprising lack of specificity. Woes are painted with broader, less insightful strokes; themes are retread to more generic ends; vulnerabilities feel at times like pantomime. The thin membrane between charismatic, gothic villain and an ordinary, garden-variety asshole turns out to be remarkably porous, and Kiss Land often comes too close for comfort.
I’m not convinced that the unbridled and angst-ridden evil we were introduced to over the course of those early EPs could simply just disappear — the devil’s looked after his own too long. My hope is that Kiss Land is just a nice little resort town where the wicked finally get a chance to rest for a while — a place where reserves of bile and dread get a chance to replenish, so that next time around, not a single pill bottle will be spared. Because pop music deserves something wicked like the Weeknd.