Contrary to most pop records, the full-length debut from British rhythm and blues auteur, FKA Twigs, isn’t a dance album. In fact, out of the ten tracks that comprise LP 1,—as it is functionally called—none lend themselves well to cadenced head-bobbing, syncopated foot-stomping, or uncouth body-swirls. Though its message is undoubtedly movement, it’s not in the physical sense; rather, LP 1 tip-toes toward, and sometimes tap-dances around, a different space and time, away from the oeuvre that makes up the modern pop music canon.
Whether she feels inhibited by the quotidian pop structure or bored by it, Twigs (née Tahliah Barnett) invokes a number of tools to disrupt the listener’s momentum. On “Video Girl”—a song which Twigs wrote, in part, as a refutation of her fame as a background dancer in pop videos for folks like Jesse J and Kylie Minogue—the electronic kick drum, snare, and Stomp!-like crashes never settle into a steady groove. Dark synthesizers murmur through the chord changes, juxtaposing against Twigs’s angelic vocals. Often, her whispery voice and the song’s rhythm change pace at different moments and at varying speeds. At the same time, a rattling hi-hat races turbulently, accelerating and decelerating spasmodically on its own. It’s quite disorienting, yet enticing as well.
Amidst the chaos Twigs remains extremely controlled and reserved, qualities which lend themselves to comparisons (which have become ubiquitous as of late) with the late “Princess of R&B,” Aaliyah Haughton. Twigs is limited vocally, like Aaliyah—neither have a particularly powerful voice—and often forays into a whimsical falsetto to climb out of her natural register. On “Give Up,” she skittishly jumps octaves, singing, “I know that sometimes you wish I would go away, away/ But I wish that you would know that I’m here to stay,” yet even when she comes back down her voice remains tempered and measured, as if she leaped off a ledge and knew where she was going to land. Both artists ebb and flow effortlessly with intense, often multi-layered production—Twigs riffing with the complicated stylings of pop heavyweights Arca, Clams Casino, and Emile Haynie; Aaliyah wedded to the human beat-box, Timbaland. While Aaliyah’s voice bounced at a staccato over Tim’s schizophrenic percussion on “Are You That Somebody?” or hypnotically rode the smooth waves of “Rock the Boat,” Twigs lethargically crawls on “Numbers” and melodically whimpers over the calamitous drums of “Hours.”
Even so, how Twigs navigates traditional pop narratives of desire, sexuality, insecurity, obsession, self-discovery and emotional volatility is all her own. Rather than expressionistically using her music to cope with life’s happenings or making them into anthems like many of her R&B contemporaries, Twigs seems more interested in confronting life’s paradoxes. On “Preface” she recites a quote by the poet Wyatt: “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” In an interview with Dazed, she doubles down on this idea, saying: “I don’t know if I’m a tortured soul, but I was born heartbroken…I remember feeling it when I was so young. I was like, ‘Mum, it hurts.’” What makes her music special is how it finds solace in remaining unsettled. As the New Yorker’s pop music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones noted in a recent profile, “The main effect [of Twigs’s music] is of non-resolution.”
While most pop artists traditionally seek to bond with their audience, Twigs seems uninterested in appeasing them whatsoever. Yet, she remains connected to them, emotionally and spiritually. As evidenced by her performance in front of a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Webster Hall, Twigs would momentarily pause throughout her set to absorb the energy in the room, pacing about the stage in her glistening gold jewelry, see-through black lingerie stockings and high heels, smiling giddily almost in disbelief that a crowd could adore her oddball ways. One moment she would perform the album’s lead single, “Two Weeks”—a song whose video features Twigs sitting atop an Egyptian throne, in all her regality—and the audience would erupt, indulging in the fantasy of the moment, vibing to echoes of electronic drumkits played by Twigs’s band and lyrics that promised liftoff, “Higher than a motherfucker.” The next moment, Twigs would leave her ebullient fans hanging, ignoring calls for her to play a few of her viral hits from EP’s past. And yet, strangely, the packed house still adored her. They cheered and whistled and seemed grateful for what she had given them. Just as she looks away, they want more.
So much of pop music today seeks to fulfill a particular desire–to titillate its audience, indulging in the oft-cited need to turn up, to lose one’s self, and to relate. Twigs occupies a starkly different space: that of artful restraint. You get the oxymoronic sense that she feels liberated by her control, a credo that bodes well for exploring dark corners of a genre that occupies so much of the limelight pop music enjoys. As she reminds us on the album’s finale, “Kicks,” a song which soars above innuendo and sonic signals of pleasure, “I just touch myself and say, ‘I’ll make my own damn way.’” One could only imagine what might lie in between the crevices. It’s a space that Twigs seems comfortable feeling around.
Ian Blair is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @i2theb.