[14 August 2014]
How weird is FKA twigs? No, this isn’t an “I know, right” rhetorical situation. I’m really asking. How weird is LP1, the long-awaited debut LP from twenty-six year-old, English phenom Tahliah Barnett? The answer, like all things weird, depends on your frame of reference. For an artist poised to transition from self-releasing her first EP to selling millions of records and embracing global fame? Yeah: she’s weird. For an artist carefully positioning herself as an avant-garde pop outsider, via wonderfully bizarre music videos (with extremely expensive-looking production values, one might add) and a curatorial ear refined in plucking the right strands of DNA from the stranger specimens of mutated R&B? Not as weird as she might seem.
The question’s an important one, since your enjoyment of LP1 likely depends on how much it does or doesn’t blow your mind with its odd textures and penchant for negative space. For listeners who’ve spent time with Kelela, or Jamie xx’s production work, or—above all—James Blake, LP1 will seem less like a revelation than another successful entry in the increasingly deep field of singer-songwriter-producers warping and fragmenting pop, R&B, and electronic music into the most distinctive sound of the decade. For those who might only be familiar with the way this sound has trickled into the mainstream via Drake (to be more precise, through his producer, Noah ‘40’ Shebib), the Weeknd, and its presence in trace amounts in songs by Future, Ciara, Beyoncé, and others, FKA twigs very well may short-circuit entire central nervous systems. The distinction is expressly not an insult to the latter group or a backhanded compliment to any of the artists listed here. Rather, it’s a compliment, out-and-out, to Tahliah Barnett: FKA twigs, more than any of her weirder colleagues, seems to understand how to fuse experimentation, traditional pop frameworks, and pop-star packaging into uniquely viable, potent formula for breakthrough success.
The undeniable highpoint here, the type of song you might call a “triumph” if you weren’t grossed out by that sort of Peter Travers earnestness, is “Two Weeks,” LP1’s first single and FKA twigs’s mission statement. A shivering, shimmering exposition of intoxicating lust, the track vibrates with a passion all the more erotic for its touch of cool restraint. A downcast synth ripples over the spare beat, as her breathy vibrato spells out a desire so full-blooded you’d be able to understand it here even if you didn’t speak English. “I can fuck you better than her,” she sings—the line is blunt enough, but twigs mutes the final two syllables by letting them bleed into the next line, sung by her double, this one mournfully crooning, “You say you want me…?” It’s an internal dialogue, one that reveals the moment for what it is: a dream, a fantasy. She’ll seduce her lover only if “you’re the only / one who instigates,” her bold-faced declarations of sexual confidence undercut by the notes of desperation in her insistences (“I could treat you better than her”). Of course, the music itself communicates all of this without having to spell it out, a fragile, seething beast of a song, equal parts sultry bass and hesitant, halting percussion. It’s a wonder.
“Two Weeks” works because it doesn’t try to subvert pop convention too deeply—at its heart, it’s a traditionally structured pop song, with a loud-quiet dynamic that emphasizes the chorus’s energy (and, since it’s 2014, the drop) against the verse’s tension. The textures here, in all their immaculate futurism, set the track apart from its Top 40 contemporaries, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine “Two Weeks” finding a foothold and climbing the charts. And that’s the conservative secret at the heart of LP1: its best moments come when FKA twigs embraces tradition, coloring it with her cutting-edge tastes without touching its core qualities. “Lights On,” for example, is another masterpiece of Sade-grade sexuality mixed with a healthy dose of tasteful James Blake glitch-pop. “Video Girl” plays sly, subtle games with tempo, adding the sort of hungover uneasiness typical of the Weeknd’s best material, but where that group would’ve oversold the paranoid heartbreak at the center of the track, twigs once again sets a mood and orchestrates it beautifully, without lapsing into melodrama.
LP1’s delight in nuance carries some of the tracks weaker on hooks here—“Pendulum” makes a well-placed staccato guitar riff sound as affecting as a full orchestra. But frequently when twigs pushes her pop instincts to the side and leans on her outré tastes, LP1’s pleasures begin to thin. Long stretches of tracks like “Hours” or “Numbers” check the boxes of R&B progressivism—vocal processing, ominous bass paired with the silence to let it breathe, lots of little clicks and beeps somewhere off in the edges of the mix—without gelling them into a cohesive, engaging whole. The record’s successes, its thrills and intimations of where FKA twigs could go with more time and cash on hand, more than make up for its weak spots. She’s not quite there yet, but it seems FKA twigs might actually be the next generation pop star we’ve been promised for so long.