A lot of effort has gone into the attempt to pigeonhole FKA twigs. Her style and persona seems to be descended from a…
A lot of effort has gone into the attempt to pigeonhole FKA twigs. Her style and persona seems to be descended from a number of obvious references: the vocal fluidity of Aaliyah, the ghostly cool of Sadé, Lisa Stanfield’s hair(!). It is clear, however, that FKA twigs is her own woman. From the gothic styling mixed with break-girl accessories, to her all-consuming videos, she is a woman firmly in control of her own image: an image that is equally hard as it is vulnerably soft, that traverses and breaks conventions on what we expect from a female pop artist. It is this with nebulous character and the strength of her initial output that blends and crushes genres at will that she releases her debut LP1 – perhaps the most anticipated pop album since Grimes’ acclaimed Visions.
In the attempt to define twigs she has been lumped with the burgeoning yet misleading indie/alternative R ‘n’ B genre. If her sound is R‘n’B then it is R‘n’B at its most desolate and fractured limits; the undefined fringes of the genre where styles seem to collide with dark and minimalist bass, grime and hip hop music. Sonically, her sound is closer to Grimes than it is to The Weeknd, more Björk than it is TLC. No more evident is that than on the album opener, ‘Preface’, a track that could have been a cut off Geidi Primes. Her voice is layered and cascaded over various iterations of itself as sharp bass stabs crush the sample. It is a fitting opener to the album: where melodies are constructed and then shattered, twig’s wispy vocals are contrasted with the harsh, dissonant and yet sensual production. FKA twigs wrote and composed all the songs on the album and was assisted by a bevy of some of the most exciting producers in music, from Kanye-favourite Arca, to Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Sampha and the established and Oscar-winning Paul Epworth. An obsessive control freak, it is no small marvel that twigs manages to orchestrate her vision to such a high calibre and such a consistent and cohesive vision.
In much the same way that Kelela’s voice was able to wind and weave with the cutting-edge production on her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, the true wonders of twig’s voice are in the lonely spaces between the sounds. The wonderful video of her singing ‘Hide’ in the ruins of a Mayan temple backed by a rudimental Mexican band shows that as gently and as sensually as she coos and purrs there is a steeliness to the apparent fragility in her voice: it may bend but it will never break. It is the same attitude that she uses to approach the way she treats, or rather, uses sex on her album. On the Arca-helmed ‘Lights On’ she sings, “Cause the man that you are is defined by the way that you act in the light”. As she notes in a recent interview, the sex in this song is used as a metaphor for mutual trust, honour and vanity in relationships. This is a common theme on the album: sex is used as superficial device for twigs to explore deeper themes that torment and embroil relationships. Nowhere is that more relevant on the resounding single ‘Two Weeks’. As she showed on the jaw-dropping video, twigs is a succubus vampire queen threatening to “feel your body closer, I can rip it open”, fully empowered and in charge, the object of twigs’ desire is literally that, an object: dispensable and defenceless. Over a synth line that seems to be hovering over the song like a cosmic beam, her voice goes from subtle pleas to force-of-nature commands in moments. It is sure to go down as one of the indelible moments of 2014.
The album moves onto the heady ‘Hours’ where in the last minute twigs’ voice is subsumed under the weight of the instrumental turmoil as she emotes as the coquette, “I can kiss you for hours”. She reinstates her dominance over her lover as she proclaims that she is the “master of all of your needs”. The album moves onto its emotional centerpiece, the jaw-dropping, ‘Pendulum’. In the full throes of emotional tumult, distant gunshot-like percussion punctuates twigs’ ringing voice. It represents the slow-burning ballad of the future. The most sensual track on an album of sensual standouts, she proclaims, “I’ve got time, but you’re tired of waiting / you only want me in other spaces / Come fill your gaps with people”.
After the superiority she had assumed over the album, the next song finds twigs’ beating, pleading heart. ‘Video Girl’ is the most personal song on the album, reflecting on twigs’ career as a young and talented dancer for Jessie J, Kylie Minogue and Plan B. On it she ruminates on being in the background; dangerously close to the fame of the artist she works for yet unlikely to ever experience it as she sings, speaking to herself over murmuring bass, “you are craving for the universe”.
The album is book-ended by the neon-glow of Sampha’s production on ‘Numbers’ and the hymnal and experimental, ‘Closer’, that stretches twigs’ voice to its most crystalline and pitch-shifted falsetto. The most “R’n’B” song is the glassy and spectral, ‘Give Up’ that makes way for closer, ‘Kicks’. On an album that had her seducing, conquering and being betrayed by lovers, she ends with the jarringly simple lyrics, “When I’m alone / I don’t need you / I love my touch / Know just what to do”. In it she is in charge of her own sexuality, her own career, her own image. She is no longer “that girl from the video”.
FKA twigs stands for “Formerly Known As twigs” – a conscious effort to breakaway from her anonymous past. And on an album that never lets up in its emotional pull, its ingenuity and its subtle depth, there are still new sonic details and themes to pick up on after multiple listens. In the end she succeeds, and just like the monarch in the ‘Two Weeks’ video she assumes her throne. It is unlikely we will hear a more accomplished and forward thinking debut this year. We are unlikely to be so entranced by a more compelling artist, too.