Buried on FKA twigs’ Tumblr page, a grainy, unassuming photo captures the twenty-five-year-old Brit deep in thought, flanked by a row of vibrato pedals, an iPad, a bottle of coconut water, a cigarette-filled ashtray, and wall-to-wall shelves of vinyl records. It’s a reflection of the paradoxical time and circumstances under which she writes and records — aided by luxuries bestowing good health and pestilence, informed by an archaic, physical collection of sounds as well as the trillions of bytes of pop music history accessible from her handheld smart device. As endless as the avenues of artistic possibilities are, the pressure to navigate the right one is even more enormous.
The oppressive urgency of FKA twigs’ work is made all the more remarkable by the fact that having the world’s knowledge at your fingertips doesn’t guarantee success. Case in point: I wasn’t sure which needle would be harder to pull from the Google haystack — FKA twigs’ real identity or any recording from the other musician named Twigs whose existence precipitated a moniker change by this one. As it turns out, Tahliah Barnett (born in Gloucestershire, now residing in London as FKA twigs) can indeed be tracked down on the internet, while the work of the other Twigs remains undiscoverable, destined to become more a historical footnote than an impediment to FKA twigs’ rise to prominence. Traditions in folklore suggest that knowing a person’s true name grants you enormous power over them, but ultimately, it is Barnett who casts a spell over us with FKA twigs’ EP2. It serves as a small sample of her exceptional talent and a tantalizing promise of what greatness might come to be.
The record is a significant progression from her already excellent debut EP — the sound production is richer, the videos more captivating, the songwriting tighter and more streamlined. Opener “How’s That” offers the most luxurious sounds Barnett has recorded yet, with languid, rolling swells of orchestral synths, ping pong beats and tambourine shakes. Buzzed about Brooklyn producer Arca (Yeezus) injects an array of details as the track unfolds: oscillating whirs, bleeps, voice decay, and busted glass beats, without ever relinquishing the song’s colossal sense of negative space. It sounds like sex personified, an insinuation made certain by FKA twigs’ pulse-quickening lyric: “That feels good / So, so amazing / In my…” she trails off, carefully tiptoeing between taboo and bliss. It’s the kind of sublime piece of art that balances the pleasures of complexity with the instinctual sense of knowing precisely when to put down the brush.
“Water Me” is an equally stunning highlight, a collection of sonic shards laid out just so to form the EP’s most indelible melody. Across mournful synths and percussive clatter, FKA twigs icily coos: “He won’t make love to me now/ Not now, I’ve set the fee.” But with just a turn of phrase, the world-weariness melts into stark vulnerability: “He told me I was so small / I told him water me.” It’s beautiful, alien, impossibly sad, and Arca’s nuanced production conveys all of these emotions at once like a mirror ball reflecting bits of whatever strays near. In Arca, FKA twigs has found an ideal foil; a producer who treats sound like sharp, minimalist sculptures, providing angular surfaces around which her sensual vocals can coil and caress. Futuristic slow jam “Papi Pacify” burns like a hot wick until its oily, slow-motion drop is detonated beneath a threatening chord change. Even “Ultraviolet,” which feels like a mundane entry in her song catalog, sounds stunning. One of the only legitimate complaints about EP2 is its brevity — the four songs are barely enough to whet the appetite.
The accompanying music videos act as flavor enhancers, adding resonance and depth to the compositions. The images are unerasable — liquid-mercury feminine forms devolving into demonic shapes, a close-up of FKA twigs’ almost inhuman transformation, or the singer getting mouth fingered by a hulking, sinister lover — the kind of arresting, hold-your-breath magic trick performances that demand repeated viewings and quickly become a part of each song’s essence. FKA twigs has employed numerous directors (Tom Beard, Jesse Kanda, and Grace Ladoja), but she plays an integral creative role in all of the video concepts, establishing her own brand of aberrant, erotic magnetism. She conveys sexuality that, while surreal in form, is tangible in emotion — the kind that that makes clips of Miley Cyrus swinging naked on construction equipment seem patently absurd. Not a moment too soon, FKA twigs is sharpening her sound and image into a formidable tool that threatens to pick the locks and pry the hinges off the gates of pop music.
A gluttony of sounds continues to collide and litter acres of stylistic debris over the 21st century musical landscape, but Tahliah Barnett thrives in the dark pockets between the wreckage. Although precious in its obscurity, her small body of work is fast becoming difficult to ignore. This music is indicative of modern times — both fractured and fluid, a confluence of trip-hop, ambient glitch, and new R&B that sounds feathery smooth, sumptuous, and menacingly nocturnal. She feels of a parallel universe, one where Massive Attack always outsells Madonna. And the best part? Every day that pop music continues to mutate by incorporating elements of once-fringe genres — trance, dancehall, dubstep, trap — into its DNA, that universe becomes ours. The prospect of FKA twigs’ first full LP should have us all salivating, but even if she remains small, her influence won’t be. If all R&B on the radio begins to sound like this, the planet will quickly become a much more crowded place.