I have a confession to make: I’m not a hipster, especially when it comes to music. If anything, I’m a reverse hipster; I only hear about things that are popular way, way after they actually are. That’s why I have a Backstreet Boys poster in my room.
And I certainly wasn’t a hipster when it came to The Weeknd. I didn’t even know he existed until the MTV Video Music Awards, where he was nominated for Best New Artist. He lost to Austin Mahone. I know who Austin Mahone is. I’ve heard his songs on the radio. Nevertheless, the snippet of his song “Wicked Games” they showed looked cool, and I now think he should have won. So I looked him up on YouTube, found his channel, and formed a slight obsession.
The thing about The Weeknd (or Abel Tesfaye, as his mother calls him) is that at first glance, he seems like just another melodramatic soul searcher, sort of like his frequent collaborator Drake (in fact, The Weeknd has appeared on two of Drake’s tracks, and vice versa). But where Drake is the depressed guy sitting in the corner of your party, watching the pretty people dance, The Weeknd never bothered to leave his room in the first place. He didn’t even respond to your e-vite. Yet he also insists he isn’t looking for anything; he’s found everything, but he found it somewhere else, somewhere far away form this physical world, and certainly far away from your party.
“Kiss Land,” then, is The Weeknd’s term for the world he currently occupies, making Kiss Land the album his Orange-Key-like tour of the premises. He promises us—just like the overly enthusiastic tour guides who try to convince lost souls that Princeton is the best place ever —that it is here where we will feel “real happiness,” whatever that is.
The underlying metaphor of tour life is difficult to miss; it is directly expressed multiple times—“As for me, I’ve been flying the world / I’ve been killing these shows” – which only makes the need for Kiss Land as an escape all the more urgent. On tour, The Weeknd sees everyone but meets no home but a great house; his confidence is low, so he gets high. By circumventing the literal grinds of tour life, The Weeknd gets straight to the purpose of Kiss Land—a cure for his perpetual loneliness.
In “Adaptation” he tells us how first he got to Kiss Land: he blew his life in the real world, so he created this other one, making it entirely his own – sort of like a fresh start. And by the time he gets to “Belong to the World” and “Tears in the Rain,” he’s back to lamenting the heartless transients from his previous album Trilogy who occupy his world. This time, however, he’s blaming himself— “I’m not a fool / I’m just lifeless too” —as though he should have known that the only people who would venture near Kiss Land are “dead inside.” No only lives in Kiss Land for very long; The Weeknd scares them off. And if we, the listener, are considering applying for citizenship, we should probably just stay in the real world.
But then the album takes a darker turn, and harmonizers take the place of instruments, and auto-tuned murmurs substitute for guest appearances. The Weeknd almost seems to want to come back home in the titular song:
I got a brand new place, I think I’ve seen it twice all year / I went from starin’ at the same four walls for 21 years / To seein’ the whole world in twelve months
It’s not easy to live in Kiss Land. The Weeknd himself, in an interview with Complex, described it as “the most terrifying thing ever… an environment that’s just honest fear,” but that’s probably why he wants us all to be there: because then it won’t be so scary. And he knows you won’t get it completely, and you’ll probably just be another brief visitor who steals his money and talent before moving on to the next one. But that’s okay; this world exists for him and him only.
“This ain’t nothing to relate to / Even if you tried.”