In John Carpenter’s seminal horror classic, Halloween, evil was omnipresent. It could be in anyone, as evidenced by Michael Myers, AKA “The Shape,” who went on a rampage in his fictional hometown for seemingly no reason at all. This sense of chaos and terror permeates throughout Toronto-born singer The Weeknd’s debut album Kiss Land – an album that eschews the tried and true hit-making formula he’d later be known for in favor of what he described to Complex as a “terrifying place.” Instead of making hits, he burrowed deeper into himself, highlighting his losses instead of his burgeoning rise to superstardom. With his influences ranging from horror masters like David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, and (of course) John Carpenter – Kiss Land is Weeknd’s invitation to his haunted house, skeletons, and all.
Before Kiss Land, The Weeknd slowly became the pioneer of a new-age R&B star – one that is heard and not seen. Besides a few shadowy pictures and grainy performance footage, he was basically a phantom. His run of mixtapes – House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence (also known as Trilogy) – was critically acclaimed, and he began to gain traction after lending his talents to Drake’s Take Care. Even with this success, the pressure mounted for his proper debut studio album. His fans were familiar with his talent, but was the world truly ready for this reclusive and moody new superstar?
The sound of Kiss Land is starkly different, cold, and unfamiliar. Leaning more towards ’80s horror, and the moody pop stylings of the time, Weeknd’s brand of sexual persuasion and proud hedonism are slapped with a gritty filter, making the album somewhat unrecognizable from his trifecta of mixtapes from a year prior. If “The Morning” from House of Balloons evoked the feel of mid-’90s R&B, songs like “The Town” on Kiss Land was an example of horror through emotion like Cronenberg’s The Fly. And it works: The Weeknd laid out the anxieties around his newfound fame bare upon the entirety of his debut. It’s a paranoid journey of a young man having to learn about loss and trust during a whirlwind year of celebrity.
The stark change in sounds is due in part to the fact that the producers that helped create his early projects (Illangelo, Doc McKinney, DROPXLIFE) did not return for Kiss Land. Instead, Weeknd himself, alongside Jason Quenneville and Miami-based producer DannyBoyStyles, handled the album. Thematically, the idea of fame is foreign to him throughout Kiss Land. The title track is a terrifying narrative about the emptiness of his popularity that builds to a denouement about him accepting it all – the sex, drugs, and superficial connections that were at one time terrifying to him. The only detour here is an appearance from Drake, who was nearing the height of his powers with Nothing Was The Same. On “Live For,” an anthem for never forgetting the people you came up with, fans are given one of the only opportunities on the album to breathe through the smoke of Weeknd’s corrupted psyche.
Kiss Land debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and managed to stave off his eventual turn into a pop music maven on 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness and 2016’s Starboy while giving his fans one last love letter to his chaotic years. Kiss Land re-established The Weeknd as a force of nature, not unlike “The Shape,” whose artistry peeled back the horror of the artist that he was born to become.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.