Tahliah Barnett deals in dialectics, those tensions between pleasure and pain, between space and noise, for example. These are hardly foreign concepts to the fertile ground of R&B, but the kiss-curled ingenue known as FKA twigs doesn’t merely operate inside such liminal spaces, she completely embodies them.
“I love another and thus I hate myself.” So begins LP1, in a nod to the 16th-century poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Recontextualised amid sub-bass and a distorted hip-hop sample, it’s the perfect credo for Barnett, who regards the quote as her record’s unofficial subtitle. It’s visually represented in the record’s provocative cover art, a portrait of Barnett covered in make-up (or bruises, depending on how you look at it).
However, despite borrowing from the past to situate herself creatively, FKA twigs’ debut record is as unmistakably futuristic as her previous two EPs, refining their outré tendencies into a purer, even more uncompromising substance. Gone is the immediacy of ‘Water Me‘, her Arca-produced breakthrough single – this is pop music that takes its name literally: popping, snapping, cracking like a warped carapace (even the name twigs refers to the way in which Barnett’s limbs click when moving).
To this end LP1 functions by giving the most significant weight to the most microscopic details. ‘Hours’ is one of many cuts that threatens to cave in on its own skeletal structure only to be saved by Barnett’s voice, at once aloof and attentive, hanging on every word. It’s only natural for the listener to feel both at ease and at odds with such instability – in LP1 every creak is a caress, every backbeat a blow to the body. For Barnett anxiety and intimacy exist on the same emotional plane. Is the subject of ‘Two Weeks’ being entreated to love, to get high, or to submit to something more sinister? The question is left unanswered.
‘Video Girl’, the record’s most lyrically direct track, is no less problematic. Barnett may be trying to confront her past as an in-demand back-in dancer, but only a seasoned performer could tackle its otherwise alien time signature shifts in such an organic way. Tellingly, she admitted to Pitchfork that she still tests her material out in a dance studio “to see if it feels good,” and one can imagine her interpreting the sparse beauty of ‘Pendulum’ with control and precision. “I dance feelings like they’re spoken” she croons during its bridge.
In fact, it’s this innate musicality that propels Barnett and her work so far ahead of those who have explored the potential of space-as-noise in recent times (The Acid, SOHN, etc.). A lesser artist would have leant on the success of their early singles, but LP1 is free from padding, devoid of features, and a more fully formed statement for it. In honouring her craft Barnett has produced the coldest album of the summer. And for that, it might just be its most beautiful.