ARTIST: FKA twigs
Tahliah Barnett, aka FKA Twigs, caught the attention of many with her defiantly eccentric first EPs and videos—T-Pain even went so far as to state that she changed his life in one interview. This early work, often in collaboration with producer Arca, set her apart from other R&B artists in the US and Britain through her rejection of established musical tropes in favor of unique, stylistic expression. Based out of London, and distributed by British label Young Turks, her music borders between smooth R&B, grime, experimental hip-hop, and underground electronic.
One often talked about characteristic of Barnett’s music is its sexuality, and with lines like, “I can fuck you better... motherfucker, get your mouth open and you know you’re mine,” one understands where the talk comes from. Though common for an R&B artist, the lusty sound stands in stark contrast to the bizarre and otherworldly sterility of many of her productions. This creates a strangely tinged sexuality that is distinct from the usual libido-infused R&B crooning. Indeed, Barnett has downplayed the importance of sexuality in her lyrics, saying in an interview with Pitchfork that in most cases the lyrics seen as most sexual are charged with a separate and more personal significance. For instance she says that the line, “If you want to touch me you can do it with the lights on” is “a metaphor for letting certain people see the different, ugly sides of you that others won't be able to see.” Despite her statement, there is still something strikingly sexual about her music, but that is certainly not the only level it operates at.
Related to the sexuality of the music is its focus on the role of lover. From the opening quote by poet Wyatt, “I love another and thus I hate myself,” LP1 explores intimate relationships between people and the grittier, less-fantasized consequences. This theme too though, seems to have another level hiding beneath, tying the role of the lover to that of artist: where the beloved other and the work of art merge, and the similar feelings they engender are explored. Like love, art comes with its own successes, beauties, insecurities and insufficiencies; it offers worlds of meaning and joy—but as Twigs herself has expressed, love and art don’t always help with the bills.
Thus, LP1 gives room to the various experiences of both roles. In “Preface”, “Pendulum” and “Numbers”, Barnett sounds vulnerable, even hurt. The line, “Am I Just a number to you,” brings that haunting question of significance, meaning and timelessness in both love and art. In contrast, “Two Weeks”, “Hours” and “Give Up” embody self-assurance, whether it’s the blissed-out desire of “Hours”, the fierce self-confidence of “Two Weeks”, or the potency of “Give Up”. Barnett sings both roles well, capturing the heights and depths of desire, satisfaction, and loss in her vocal inflection.
Experiences of love and art are also captured in the instrumental, though in a different manner to the vocal and lyrical. Barnett’s chosen instrumentals employ a vast palette of sounds where focus seems to be given to the feeling that certain sounds provoke, rather than to building any compelling harmonic structure. In broad strokes, most of these musical spaces are shadowy and roomy, peopled by ghostly vocal resampling, otherworldly synth patches, sharp clacking percussion and subterranean bass. In contrast to her smooth—sometimes angelic—and often-passionate voice, these constructions are stark spaces.
This tension, among other things, is what sets FKA Twigs apart from the pop R&B crowd. Hers are not the velvety instrumentals that dominate much of popular R&B and its electronic-infused incarnations like The Weekend. Instead, Barnett is not afraid to venture into experimental territory: the oft-aggressive frontier regions of electronic and hip-hop. Yet, there is always something, frequently her voice, that grounds these tracks in the melodic, the smooth—the caressing R&B voice that keeps the track from being all grit and bone, or candy-sweet. Therefore, as a coherent piece of work, LP1 fulfills much of what those already familiar FKA Twigs work could have hoped for: themes of art and love (and even artistic love) compel complex emotion, always oddly tangible in her work; whilst innovative productions drive her voice, fitting perfectly with her concepts and extraterrestrial-pop aesthetic. In this way, never settling for any less—constantly stretching the boundaries of what R&B can be—Barnett confirms her place in the spotlight.
“All eyes on you now, what you gonna do?”