FKA Twigs - LP1 - Review
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critics' view

By now, those with their ears pricked up will probably know a little about the artist Formerly Known as Twigs, one of 2014's most eagerly anticipated debutantes. The gossip goes like this: a dancer-turned-singer, Tahliah Barnett, was once, as per her latest track-leak, a Video Girl for artists such as Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue.

Most infamously, she had a role in Jessie J's les-sploitation video for Do It Like a Dude. Her joints crack like splintering wood (hence the name Twigs, also claimed by another Twigs, hence the FKA). Barnett coos in an ecstatic falsetto, and eschews the conventional sexualisations that most new female performers seem to have to endure for something more mysterious. Jesse Kanda's hyper-stylised, manipulated images that accompanied Twigs's rise throughout 2012-3 have made her look like a manga cartoon crossed with an African tribeswoman, or a paint-spattered canvas.

Barnett's music is the latest chapter in the ongoing transatlantic vogue for barely-there R&B, and this album joins her two previously released EPs in providing the subgenre with new heights. At its most textbook, R&B is urban body music, but this stuff is filtered through a prism of otherworldliness and liminality, not strictly made for the dancefloor, although the option of horizontal dancing is strongly suggested throughout. Dozens of artists have been going at it, – not least the xx – but the most infamous is probably the Weeknd, whose three 2011 mixtapes crystallised this hyper-digital, alienated approach: sultry, slow, skeletal. The mainstream constantly recycles basic come-hither music, but here, lust is fraught with unease, and the postcoital lulls are compromised by dissatisfaction. You might call it the sex-angst of millennials, if sex hadn't always come with angst.

Anyway, FKA Twigs is spectacularly good at it. Even Video Girl, which is about how Twigs hated being recognised for being part of other people's art ("The camera loves you/Ain't that enough?") sounds like a compound orgasm, all layered cooing and waves of digital lubrication. In a recent interview, Barnett has claimed that LP1 is not all about sex – even Lights On, which is, literally, about "do[ing] it with the lights on". Apparently it's about trust. But you have to disregard a truckload of dusky languor and frottaging beats if you are going to take FKA Twigs at her word.

Even if the sex-angst of millennials is not your thing, FKA Twigs can still satisfy, and that is why LP1 (the title oozes confidence) is so special. Sex is such a tired subject, but here, everything – insecurity ("Was I just a number to you?"), passion, perfectionism, ambition, regret, obsession – is worked through the lens of haunted carnality. Fortunately this treatment sustains your interest over 10 tracks. There are various collaborators here – super-producer Paul Epworth, Emile Haynie (Eminem, Lana Del Rey), glacial soul man Sampha, and Solange Knowles's former enabler, Dev Hynes – but the unity of sound is striking. The restless digitals are exquisite. Gradually the album stops resembling Aaliyah and D'Angelo going at it on a bed of ice and starts to suggest other things – Kate Bush remixed by James Blake, for one.

Barnett's singing on Preface and Closer is pure church hymnal, deliciously undercut by a little keyboard motif on the latter track. The entire album opens with a quote from the English Renaissance poet Thomas Wyatt – "I love another and thus I hate myself," breathes FKA Twigs – adding to the charge of a record with more going on beneath the covers than first appears.

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