Tahliah Debrett Barnett, better known as FKA Twigs, isn’t a household name, but in the manner of all true visionaries, she probably doesn’t have to be, at least not in her own time. While her second full-length album, Magdalene, arrives nearly five years after her last release—a veritable eon in pop music years—and over 7 years after her first release, it’s an unequivocal reminder that she is still ahead of the curve when it comes to innovative, experimental and forward-looking electronic pop. On Magdalene, she remains as idiosyncratic as ever while honing and expanding the sonic palette that has found its way into the coloring boxes of more visible ‘cutting edge’ artists such as Billie Eilish and Rihanna who still find themselves living in her shadow.
The Roots of FKA twigs: EP and EP2
FKA twigs’ debut EP—simply titled EP—isn’t a perfect release in that it lacks the kind of razor-sharp compositional and emotional focus that would inform her subsequent works, but it is still a staggering achievement as a completely independent and self-produced project. It’s an artistic statement that, while somewhat raw, is shockingly effective at its best and endlessly fascinating even at its relative worst. Barnett’s vulnerable and soulful soprano voice floats ethereally on clouds of minimalistic Trip Hop textures and post-dubstep beats that are arguably as evocative as anything by Portishead or Massive Attack during trip hop’s heyday nearly two decades before it.
Songs like “Ache”, in particular, demonstrated Barnett’s ability to not only be innovative in her construction of ambient soundscapes but also write genuine songs whose layers evolve and expand intuitively and organically while effortlessly chalking out earworms.
EP2, while a logical descendant of EP, is also in many ways a quantum leap, with redoubled focus on the lyrical and emotional cores of the songs. Thematically, the album addresses a toxic relationship while its lush and sensuous atmosphere elicits its insidious lure. The album manages to marry reverb-drenched Trip Hop to R&B inflected vocals while also incorporating dubstep and trap beats as well as industrial and reggae elements that can be as seductive as they can be ominous.
The Flowering of FKA twigs: LP1 and M3LL155X
If EP and EP2 establish the template for what FKA twigs is, then her first full-length album—appropriately titled LP1—finds her honing that template to a fine point. While her production continued to be as genre-fluid and as experimental ever, it also found her songwriting focusing more on true R&B and pop elements with soaring harmonies and proper hooks that weave their way gracefully between the tapestries of deep bass hits and swirling synth textures. The production on songs like “Pendulum” and “Two Weeks”, despite their rattling snare hits and rumbling bass, also lend an air of warmth and immediacy to the songs, and help them achieve catharsis without having to resort to pop bombast in the choruses.
For most artists LP1 would have represented a creative high watermark that they would have struggled to approach a second time and yet, almost exactly a year later, Barnett dropped M3LL155X (pronounced “Mellissa”) which found her again pushing the envelope of the sound that she herself had seemingly perfected. M3LL155X relies less on lush soundscapes and more on aggressive, though still minimalistic, glitchy beats and woozy synths and harsh sub-bass that seems more derived from industrial than Trip Hop. Even lyrically Barnett takes on a more aggressive and assertive persona, especially compared to her vulnerable introspection on EP2 and sultriness on LP1, despite her vocal delivery remaining consistent in its whispered allure offset by pitch-shifted harmonies.
The Fruition of FKA twigs: Magdalene
Considering the relentless innovation, persistent envelope-pushing and otherworldly consistency in quality that Barnett had put on display over the first 3 years, 3 EPs and one LP of her career it would have been almost understandable, or maybe even expected for her to reach a creative slump. For an artist as prolific as she was, it’s probably more likely that her extended hiatus was the product of her painful physical struggles with uterine fibroids than the creative well run dry. In either case, returning to the media eye after an extended period could not have been easy for her. It is into this miasma of uncertainty and possibly unreasonable expectations that Barnett finally dropped Magdalene, and in the process delivered the statement that even with a four-year head start, the rest of pop-music is still struggling to catch up with her.
Overcoming her own medical problems appears to have renewed Barnett’s confidence because on Magdalene she leans on her own voice to a greater degree than on any of her own albums. While the production and grooves remain as unpredictable and innovative as ever, assisted by the talents of luminaries such as Skrillex, Nicolas Jaar, and Benny Blanco, Barnett’s vocals—ranging from choral chants to powerful lower range singing to her trademark whispery falsetto—remain front and center through the runtime of Magdalene. This isn’t to say that her voice dominates the record, but more than the instruments work to complement and support the pillars that her voice provides, rather than providing the pillars that she winds her way between.
Tunes like “Cellophane” and “Sad Day” aren’t Barnett’s first forays into pop music, or rather pop music as she perceives pop music, but they definitely are some of her most unselfconscious attempts at appropriating the tropes of the form for her own purposes; to mold and recast as she sees fit. And she is successful, for the most part, at reinventing both herself and contemporary pop music. The lone failure on Magdalene is “Holy Terrain” which isn’t even that bad, all things considered. However, its straightforward trap beat and Futures cameo make it sound rather generic—a word that has heretofore never been applicable to FKA twigs—especially in contrast to the rest of the album.
Magdalene is as complex, both emotionally and musically, as the story of Mary Magdalene, which it references in both title and theme, despite being, in many ways, Tahliah Debrett Barnett’s most accessible offering to date. However, she continues to twist pop idioms to her own will rather than contorting herself to adhere to its fickle whims. While FKA twigs’ evolution might have brought her tantalizingly close to pop bliss it maintains its air of avant-garde aloofness and remains steadfastly uninterested in being anything less than revolutionary. Much like FKA twigs’ previous offerings, Magdalene provides a brand new celestial reference point for other pop artists to navigate by.