Forget flipping the script — FKA twigs throws the old R&B playbook completely out the window. This debut album from British singer/songwriter Tahliah Barnett gives a much-needed breath of fresh air into a genre that had long stagnated with simplistic studio production and overdone diva turns by ignoring all the rules (rhythmic, melodic or otherwise). Barnett is something wholly original — a new voice, who’s undeniably talented to the trained ear, and wildly exciting, especially to those who haven’t given mainstream R&B much of a chance since Timbaland teamed with Aaliyah in the ‘90s.
On jams like “Lights On” and “Hours,” she takes the anxious, slow motion energy of electronic artists like Purity Ring, and ups the raw sensuality, both with her breathy vocals and her palpable sense of anticipation. Bringing to mind Bjork more than Lorde, the stark, minimalistic arrangements throb with Barnett’s sense of longing. Yet, for all its cold sterility on the surface, everything still emanates with the ever-present heat of desire burning somewhere deep inside her, especially on breakout single “Two Weeks.” On “Closer,” she sounds outright haunted by her loneliness, the synth lead chasing her throughout the track’s verses before she finally succumbs in the song’s closing coda, singing: “All those years in isolation…isolation…isolation.”
Like any risk-taker, Barnett carefully finds just the right balance between beauty and breakdown, pleasure and pain. And she dangles there, for nearly the entirety of the album, her voice warbling with the digital ebb and flow of her music, attempting to extend that perfect precipice into the infinite. It’s an ostentatious move that some will describe as trying too hard, but why can’t defiant effort regain the sense of crazy, sexy, cool it once had? — Eric Mitts