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Culture Club: Seduced by the Weeknd
  • September 19, 2013 : 23:09
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Part of the secret is his voice. Graceful, vulnerable, able to reach the same high register as Maxwell, that voice could make millions hawking saccharine lover-man ballads. Instead, on Kiss Land it’s used to coldly examine the life of a stripper on the opening track, “Professional,” in which the Weeknd observes, “Now you’ve got it made / Getting rich to the drums of your favorite song… / Your freedom was here in this cage all along / How did you drain all the soul from your eyes?” This is asked not with contempt but with nonchalance, the track’s silky keyboards and electronic beats recalling the shimmering alienation perfected by 1990s trip-hop acts such as Massive Attack and Tricky. Ignore the lyrical content and the Weeknd’s voice conjures up all sorts of romantic and wistful feelings—it sounds as though he’s singing love songs. But zoom in on the words and it tells a different story.

It’s nothing new for a musician to sell listeners a vision of wickedness that they can live through vicariously. Gangster rap and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction peddled depravity and lawlessness with a dollop of fantasy. But by comparison, the Weeknd doesn’t glorify his late-night creeping—he just treats it as grim reality. “Good girls go to heaven / And bad girls go everywhere,” he tells his latest fuck buddy on the deceptively bouncy dance track “Wanderlust.” “Tonight I will love you / And tomorrow you won’t care.” And woe is the lover who thinks he’s in search of something more long-term. “They’re in love with this idea of love,” he says of the women he sees around him. “It’s a shame that they’ll believe it will come.”

In Kiss Land’s stark environment, deception and power plays dominate. Throughout, the Weeknd is either confronting a new hookup or revisiting a past fling, and consequently the songs are filled with people desperately trying to protect their emotions so the other person can’t hurt them. Riding a staccato percussion sample from Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” “Belong to the World” finds the Weeknd talking to yet another hooker, one he’s starting to have feelings for. But their bond is an odd one: “I’m not a fool / I just love 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 / And you taught me how to love / What nobody ever could.” When he’s not dabbling in prostitutes, he’s reflecting on women he left behind when he went on tour. On “Adaptation,” he wonders about someone who might have been a worthwhile girlfriend if he had just stayed. But there’s no regret: “I chose the lie / I chose the life / Then I realized / She might have been the one / I let it go / For a little fun / I made a trade / Gave away our days / For a little fame / Now I’ll never see your face / But it’s okay / I adapted anyway.”

In the Weeknd’s world, every interaction is simply a way to get what you want sexually and leave the other person wanting more. The title track, which incorporates female horror-movie screams and Halloween vibes, opens with “When I got on stage / She swore I was six feet tall / But when she put it in her mouth / She can’t seem to reach my…,” the lewd lyric dissolving into another scream. On “Live For,” he’s miserable about being sober and looking forward to his next chance to go out on the town: “Kissing bitches in the club / They wanna threesome, then some / Spend whatever come in, fuck an income.”

“The album is about what young men think but will never say out loud,” he told MTV recently. “I’ve learned to pretty much not give a shit, and it kind of morphed into this sound and it works.” It’s that candor that has made his music so fascinating: There isn’t an internal filter on his lyrics, and what comes forth is a cavalcade of hedonism and self-loathing that isn’t concerned with alienating his latest potential conquest. And while he’s wrong that Kiss Land reflects the mindset of the average 20-something male—most of us didn’t have his fame, money or predilection for call girls—it does tap into a postadolescent anxiety that makes sex and drugs much easier to obtain than romantic stability. Most of us grow out of that stage, but it’s possible he never will.

There aren’t a lot of outright singles on Kiss Land; seven of the 10 tracks stretch over five minutes as the Weeknd broods in his despondent yet sexy soundscapes. He’s not trying to justify his worldview, but he does want to make sure the scope of its craving and persistent dissatisfaction is understood. The Weeknd may come across as a bit of a pig, but he knows his milieu. Maybe too well. “This ain’t nothing to relate to / Even if you tried,” he sings at the end of “Kiss Land.” That might be a taunt, or it might be a warning. I’m not sure he even knows.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available now on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.

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