Styles: future pop
Others: Arca, James Blake, Beyoncé
Pop music’s omnivorous nature is increasingly transforming the genre into a productive assemblage in its own right, eclipsing and consuming the artists who might have once been described as self-sufficient entities “expanding its borders.” By way of example, PC Music’s (excellent) recent output had the paradoxical effect of making “Lemonade,” the most recent single by SOPHIE after the producer’s sudden ascent in the dance/pop ecology, seem strangely regressive — despite the fact that it wouldn’t be unfair to describe the PC Music catalogue as playing around in the newly opened sandbox of “pop” left in the rift that SOPHIE’s “Bipp” ever so briefly tore in pop’s fabric (albeit with a big push from the decaying vaporware movement).
Along similar lines, British vocalist and producer FKA twigs enacted a similarly fleeting rupture in the fabric of pop music with the release of her EP2, a collaboration with Venezuelan/Brooklyn producer Arca, repeating a strangely familiar move in pop music by bringing it into the realm it so adores, where the alien and the deeply familiar embrace, which in this case was a future trip-hop stepping into a liminal space of ghosts and indeterminacy, sexual energy, and acute melancholy. EP2 didn’t immediately birth a swath of imitators — though one could trace its echo in Beyoncé’s self-titled release, a ghost wandering in that album’s negative space — but perversely enough, LP1, her newest release and debut album, scans as pop music’s re-codificiation of the space investigated by EP2 rather than as a “step forward.” Even putting aside the limits of the teleology inherent in that statement, one still senses the pop music assemblage exerting a rigid structure to a sound that was built by taking the rigidity of that structure as a guideline for experimentation.
This foreplay is all merely to suggest that LP1 is a solid, fully confident pop album built from the same blocks that formed her previous release, which nevertheless forgoes the bewilderingly alien quality of her best work. An element as immediately identifiable as the ticking woodblock motif that falls in and out of tempo from EP2’s standout “Water Me” crops up again in LP1’s “Pendulum,” but it no longer serves the structural role it once did, becoming a piece of emotional filigree rather than the disruptive force it once threatened to become. The ghosts are still here, with her voice flitting between the ethereal and the corporeal, but the structure has become codified. The interaction between blocky chunks of synthetic harmony and unstable fluid dynamics that had once defined her compositional style as much as her melodic and rhythmic choices now finds itself relegated to playing a role in “defining a style” for FKA twigs as an artist in terms both aesthetic and market-oriented.
Paradoxically — and yet in keeping with the forces traditionally exercised by the pop assemblage — the strongest result of this reoriented focus is LP1’s most straightforward track, lead single “Two Weeks.” Alongside an oscillating bed of production that dutifully retraces pop templates while incorporating her particular brand of watery electronic tones, FKA twigs’ vocals are pushed to the foreground and stripped of many of her usual production elements, resulting in a track that slots in alongside much of contemporary forward-looking pop both mainstream — again, hi Beyoncé! — and quasi-underground perhaps best epitomized by Tri Angle Records. Simultaneously propulsive and deeply attuned to the intermediate space between emotional and physical responses, the song smartly reworks third-wave feminist sexuality for a dance environment in ways that are less theoretical than intuitive. It’s also aided by one of FKA twigs’ strongest lyrical turns, with its permutations and rewritings of “Mouth open/ Hard motherfucker/ You know that you’re mine” finding particular resonance through her idiosyncratic approach to phrasing and melody.
It’s in lines such as this, with the combination of emotional honesty and reserve marked by “When I trust we can do it with the lights off/ When I trust we’ll make love until the morning/ I’ll tell you all my secrets and I’ll whisper until the dawn” (“Lights On”), that the album offers its strongest elements. While EP2 placed its emotional physics in its composition, LP1 takes the appropriately more direct route, its sonics at once working on the body in ways similar to those employed by DJ Rashad and articulated by Mr P in his review of Just A Taste Vol. 1 while still retaining an emotive approach to harmonic progression, the emotional-corporeal bent of the music hammered home in bluntly poetic lines such as “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in” (“Two Weeks,” again). Still, these are heights that the album apparently aspires to but only sporadically achieves, with much of the tracks playing a more simplistic game of transposing her signature sonics into more familiar territories.
We’ve lost the futurity and liminality that initially pushed her to a vanguard, but this is less a failure of an artist than it is her increased engagement with a wide variety of vectors. Singularity is always fleeting in pop, and the success of her venture is strangely validated by its failure in other critical modes. FKA twigs has entered the strange popular space where the particulars of sexual desire and the late stages of feminism collide, and where futurism burrows into the mundanely present. An easy analytical route suggests that the capitalist incentive provides a straightforward explanation for such a process — financial safety in proven forms. But a more instructive reading places FKA twigs, her former and current collaborators, and the various genres and signifiers they draw from as discrete trajectories interacting with one another and the pop ecosystem at large, with strategies that involve both reactionary and radical encounters with cultural capital, traditional capital, and the hosts of capitals afforded by various political/social modes, and with a particular flux provided by their intentional routing through sexual urges and sexual politics as modifying principles. No longer a statement and certainly abandoning the vanguard, it’s still some sort of map of some sort of territory, a specific body and a specific sexuality in a specific sonic present/presence.
02. Lights On
03. Two Weeks
06. Video Girl
09. Give Up