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The Weeknd Revels In Raw Emotion On 'Kiss Land'

Kiss Land is singer Abel Tesfaye's major-label debut as The Weeknd. (Courtesy of the artist)

Even if they're brokenhearted, R&B singers tend to come off as cool customers who can make love seem like an achievable ideal. But The Weeknd is a hot mess.

Driven by a voice that's generally pushed up to a verge-of-hysteria falsetto — it makes you think of Michael Jackson — The Weeknd's Gothic style interrogates a lot of the cliches of boilerplate R&B. As a Toronto-based singer-songwriter and producer, Abel Tesfaye became an Internet phenomenon when he began self-releasing free mixtapes of woozy, haunted R&B songs in 2010. While he later repackaged this material for a collection called Trilogy, Kiss Land is his proper major-label debut.

Like many second albums, Kiss Land addresses the pitfalls of success. Just how autobiographical it is can be unclear, but you worry about the singer when you hear the title track, a debased slow jam that ends with a breathless descent into drugged-out nightclub purgatory.

What's most remarkable about The Weeknd's music, besides its deeply narcotic electronic arrangements, is how remote and twisted love generally seems amid the familiar trappings of pop-music bliss. But on the more conventional tracks, when he tries to have it both ways, his approach can verge on schtick.

Regardless, the hat trick of Tesfaye's art is that by singing about emotional numbness, he makes music that's the opposite of numbing — raw, probing and totally alive.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The Weeknd, that's W-E-E-K-N-D, is the artistic moniker of Toronto-based producer and singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye. He became an Internet phenomenon in 2010 when he started self-releasing mixtapes of woozy, haunted R&B songs for free. He repackaged this material on a collection called "Trilogy." And his proper major label debut was released just today. It's called "Kiss Land," and Will Hermes has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROFESSIONAL")

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Even if they're brokenhearted, R&B-style singers tend to make love seem like an achievable ideal. What's most remarkable about The Weeknd's music, besides its deeply narcotic electronic arrangements, is how remote and twisted love generally seems amidst the familiar trappings of pop music bliss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROFESSIONAL")

THE WEEKND: (Singing) What does it mean, oh, when your heart's already numb? You're professional, won't treat it like it's personal. No...

HERMES: R&B singers also tend to come on as cool customers, but Tesfaye is a hot mess, his voice generally pushed up to a verge-of-hysteria falsetto that makes you think of Michael Jackson. And like many second albums, "Kiss Land" addresses the pitfalls of success. How autobiographical is it? That's unclear. But you worry about the singer when you hear the title track, a debased slow jam that ends with a breathless decent into drugged-out nightclub purgatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS LAND")

WEEKND: (Singing) And I don't got any friends. I got XO in my blood work, and I'm posted up down in Florida, Fort Lauderdale to that MIA. Cold drinks with Grand Marnier to the break of dawn, Kahlua milk, white Russian when the sun hits, white Russians with tongue tricks.

HERMES: The Weeknd's gothic style interrogates a lot of the cliches of boilerplate R&B. But on the more conventional tracks, when he tries to have it both ways, his approach can verge on shtick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELONG TO THE WORLD")

WEEKND: (Singing) I'm not a fool. I just love that you're dead inside, 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. Nobody ever would. And you taught me how to love when nobody ever could.

HERMES: I just love that you're dead inside doesn't strike me as the year's most effective pop earworm. Of course, some vampire film soundtrack supervisor may yet prove me wrong. Regardless, the hat trick of Tesfaye's art is that by singing about emotional numbness, he makes music that's the opposite of numbing. It feels raw, probing and totally alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAPTATION")

WEEKND: (Singing) When the sun goes up, you're searching for a love so your heart won't lead you to anyone. When the sun goes down, I know what you become. You become awake unlike the rest of us.

CORNISH: The new album by The Weeknd, it's called "Kiss Land. Our critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADAPTATION")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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