A Guide to FKA Twigs, Music’s New “It Girl”

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 11 2014 8:17 AM

A Guide to FKA Twigs, Music’s New “It Girl”

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Meet FKA Twigs, the young British singer people can't stop talking about.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Ketel One

The name FKA Twigs might not mean much to many music fans in the U.S. just yet, but it’s one they’ll likely be hearing a lot about for the rest of 2014. This is a long time coming. On the strength of two acclaimed EPs in 2012 and 2013, she landed a spot in March on the BBC’s prestigious Sound of 2014 list. She didn’t win (she was beaten out by Sam Smith, who has since become one of the biggest stars in the country), but the buzz surrounding her has only gotten stronger since then. In the last few months, she’s been featured in publications such as The New Yorker, Vogue, New York, Pitchfork, the Fader, and Dazed.

Her popularity is strongest online: When her excellent first single, “Two Weeks,” was released in June, it rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s Trending 140 ahead of Pharrell’s “Happy.” But it’s beginning to swell offline as well: On Wednesday night, she performed at New York City’s Webster Hall—the first of three sold-out shows on her brief North American tour this month—and the crowd included such forward-thinking trendsetters as David Byrne and ASAP Rocky.

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This week, she releases her long-awaited debut album, aptly titled LP1 (streaming now on iTunes), and most of the early reviews are raves. If you’re not yet acquainted with music’s newest “It Girl,” get caught up with this quick primer.

Twigs (who styles her name FKA twigs and whose real name is Tahliah Barnett), a 26-year-old native of Gloucestershire, got her start as a dancer, having moved to London as a teenager to study the craft professionally. Once there, though, she realized her real passion wasn’t dancing but music. “I discovered that I didn’t love dancing, I loved dancing to music,” she recently explained to Zane Lowe. Still, for a time she kept appearing in music videos for pop stars like Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran, and Jessie J—Twigs is noticeable throughout Jessie J’s videos for “Do It Like a Dude” and “Price Tag.” It’s a time in her life she’s spoken about before and one she alludes to midway through LP1, on “Video Girl”: “Nineteen, too keen/ Looking at the game, though/ Trying to make a stand for the big screens.”

In 2012, she shifted gears entirely and uploaded four pulsating songs labeled EP1 to her Tumblr after connecting with some people from influential U.K. imprint Young Turks (her current label). Though the songs were promising, their videos were what got FKA Twigs on the media’s radar. Many music blogs shared one video in particular, “Hide,” which shows a slowly gyrating female body dressed in only a mesh bra and a flower petal over her vagina. Last year, the spotlight on Twigs intensified when she released the surreal visuals for “Water Me” (a song from 2013’s EP2), which imagine Twigs, with eyes blown out of proportion, rocking side to side to the song’s glitchy beat like a bobblehead doll. To date, it has about 3 million views.

While some critics have related Twigs to Sade, Björk, Aaliyah, and trip-hop artists like SZA, her sound is uniquely her own—melismatic falsetto over beats that are equal parts spooky and soothing. Twigs has also gone to great pains to construct an image that effectively communicates her identity in ways her music sometimes can’t. Her look is distinct: neatly arranged braids, styled baby hairs (which she first showcased on the cover of British fashion magazine i-D), lots of gold jewelry (including a septum ring), and a (mostly black) vintage-style wardrobe. It’s all of a piece with her performance style, best expressed at her live shows, where she moves across the stage like a feline—hyperaware and in control of her environment—and frequently pauses mid-song in order to convulse her petite dancer’s body to the beat. Her stage presence has a mesmerizing effect captured in videos like “Papi Pacify.” That gorgeous black-and-white clip, from last year, explores sexual submission in a way that recalls Madonna’s “Erotica” but is more successful.

So far, reviews for LP1 have been overwhelming positive (“genuinely brilliant,” “building the sound of the future,” “confident, quietly subversive”). And the album’s latest single, “Pendulum,” is Twigs’ best song to date. As in much of her work, the track opens with an unsettling clacking noise that’s soon balanced out by a skittering breakbeat and throbbing bass. But it’s one of the more accessible songs in her catalog, thanks in large part to its massive chorus, in which Twigs coos a verse that perfectly sums up her approach: “I dance feelings like they’re spoken.”

Dee Lockett is Slate's editorial assistant for culture.

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