Have You Heard? Following Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs (not to mention her latest video clip), Kanye West is (apparently) planning to rework the certified banger “Black Skinhead” from his most recent album Yeezus with the assistance of the previously very famous but now über-famous 20-year-young Cyrus. After much fanfare regarding her recent work, you’re most probably aware of the particulars and what it means for popular music, the misappropriation of African-American culture by an enormously rich white girl, the social/cultural ramifications, and so forth.
But does this mean that pop music — in its current incarnation — is finished? If so, one could actually see it as a rather fitting and natural end to Western popular music — the unashamed, egotistical alpha male meets the Miley, a surreal and miasmic being so unshackled from the checks of reality and whose attempts at cultural re-appropriation are so misplaced and ludicrous that it forces us to sit and ponder. After all, where can we go after Miley? After Kanye vs. Miley.gif? What more can pop music do?
Here, we turn to FKA twigs for a different take on the “pop” norm with her latest release, the obscurely and evasively titled EP2. While her debut EP was enjoyable enough, one could sense something was missing. It didn’t really bring anything dramatically new to the table, and it certainly didn’t help that anyone dabbling in mildly experimental pop music with a reliance on airy, angelic female vocals and repetitive, even cyclical percussive rhythms had to deal somehow with the explosion of Claire Boucher last year. But while FKA twigs’ voice, a delicate and sensual soprano, felt stitched and dully suspended above a set of intricate but ultimately uninteresting instrumental tracks in some generic R&B/pop chanteuse role, this EP sees her not only discarding that role, but also deconstructing and reworking it.
FKA twigs teams this time with Arca (Alejandro Ghersi) — the swagged-out Venezuelan producer who provided production support on Yeezus and recently released an alarmingly good mixtape (&&&&&) — whose presence on this release cannot be understated. His manipulation of future hip-hop simulacra provides an accompaniment both minimal and suitable for FKA twigs’ sparse vocal phrases, which are in turn electronically manipulated to provide a virtual ensemble — one part soaked in reverb, one part pitched up to provide detached harmonies over Arca’s clanking, half-identifiable, part-evanescent, part-industrial beats.
With the vocalist’s instrumental relationship to the producer now changed, the lyrical emphasis shifts too, as FKA twigs is content to strip back the complexity of her lyrics to better fit with the strange textures shaped by Arca. It’s a difference apparent not only between her first EP and this one, but also between herself and her contemporaries. The impressive vocal efforts of Grimes are what FKA twigs is most frequently compared to, but on this particular EP, it’s possible this is due more to range and timbre than to lyrical style and delivery. It soon becomes apparent that Arca and FKA twigs have carved out a viable and individual collaborative sound — the first two tracks following on naturally from FKA twigs’ first EP with noticeable input from Arca, and the latter two highlighting Arca in the driving seat, particularly “Ultraviolet,” with its nasty pitch-shifted mid-section vocal that conjures Salem as much as it does James Ferraro.
Of course, I wouldn’t argue that Arca’s eerie transformation of vocal samples from FKA twigs on “Water Me” are altogether unheard of before today. Since choral composers moved away from Gregorian chant, people have been continually “radicalizing” quite specific developments in all technical areas that are then glossed over relatively quickly. What’s probably more affecting, specifically for this release and in line with other remarkable pieces, is when those techniques aid in the creation of a sound that transcends simple technical innovation and evokes something within the listener that they recognize as very similar to what the artist intended; some kind of communicative relationship — be it blunt or abstract, sympathetic or coddling — is the hallmark of artistry, a reflection of what discerns the innovators from the communicators.
And this communication seems tied to how music of this form has spread with the assistance of this newly democratized internet. Besides missing the point of a youth culture free to explore the extremities of subcultures, it’s far too easy to mock the Tumblrsphere, to condemn it as lacking in some virtue only attainable by a more high-brow, bourgeois approach. The world of Tumblr probably wouldn’t give a shit what (they may or may not interpret as) some stiff from half a century ago thought of their art. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the music lumped together as “post-internet” or New Aesthetic is “redeemable;” once that artistic handle is applied, it sticks, and it’s confrontational, a trait undeniably attractive to youth concerned with a degree of self-expression. In this way, the approach is not too far from the “radicals” of the 50s, the 60s, from every rebellious revolution from the past. Just like their cultural forebears, current agitators face criticism concurrent to praise.
Arca and FKA twigs aren’t self-proclaimed representatives of this phase or shift in experimental popular music, but they are symptomatic of it — of what can make the complicated and convoluted craft of the singer-songwriter-producer enjoyable and relevant in a modern world overwhelmingly dense with competition and experimentation. In this regard, EP2 is a refreshing and remarkably concise collaborative effort, showing that, given the right push, FKA twigs is more than capable of crafting an environment that is stimulating on both aesthetic and intellectual levels. So don’t waste your valuable time soaking up Cyrus’ minders’ sensationalist plotting or thinking about how it might melt the establishment’s preconceptions, or even if that matters. Instead, FKA twigs. Get on it.