Rookie of the Year: FKA twigs

Tahliah Barnett is not merely a female voice or muse.


    Artwork by Kristin Frenzel (Buy prints + more)

    She’s only a year older than me, but I think I want to be FKA twigs when I grow up. After an extended prologue of beautiful, nightmarish videos illustrating songs on her first two EPs, the 26-year-old producer, singer, and dancer released her first album last August. And LP1 does not fuck around.

    “I love another, and thus I hate myself,” Tahliah Barnett sings on the album’s first track, “Preface”. Her voice lilts as if to the rafters of a cathedral, delicate and layered, echoing off of itself. Then another voice, serrated and deep, crashes in. In her new video for “Video Girl”, twigs mouths along to both voices as she watches a criminal being prepared for lethal injection. She’s angel and demon, transcendental savior and the grit of hell in one.


    FKA twigs appears in nearly all her videos, even when you can’t see her face or her features are distended beyond realism. She’s more than just present; she commands the space around her. Emerging from a career as a dancer in other people’s music videos, Barnett has a deep grasp on the way the camera turns pixels into a living, human environment. She knows how to manipulate you through your laptop screen.


    Take “Two Weeks”, the first video from a song off LP1, released early this year. She’s a goddess there, enthroned and serene as dancers writhe around her. At first you think they’re behind her; the camera pans out slowly in a single take, and their heads only come up to her seated hips. Your brain does the work of placing them far back in the temple. Then the video breaks your sense of perspective. The dancers’ arms flash in front of twigs. They’re not far — she’s just titanic, superhuman, as tall as the temple that houses her.

    “What makes me a woman is when I know I’ve produced a song myself,” Barnett told Rookie earlier this year, “when I’ve found an artist to work with, given him a beat to work on and told him what I wanted, and he’s given it back to me and it’s what I’d envisioned as a producer. Or when I’ve made a video and released it into the world.” LP1 boasts a number of flashy names in its credits, from budding producer Arca to Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. But its consistency is more remarkable than the buzz around its discrete parts. It’s easy to see a list of men in the liner notes and assume the woman on the cover is just the voice filling space between their beats. But twigs is not your muse. She’s not an incorporeal entity glazing over the work of her co-producers. She’s a leader, an organizer, who hired her friends and collaborators to help her complete her vision. “This is the absolute epitome of what makes me feel like an adult, and like I’m handling my business. I’ve sat in front of my computer at three o’clock in the morning and I’ve made something myself that I had to learn how to do that was very difficult.”

    LP1 is meticulous, the product of a perfectionist’s work. It’s clear in the way the beats mingle with Barnett’s voice, in the way industrial ugliness scrapes against choral beauty. Barnett finds the tension between extremes here. “Every single decision that I’ve made to become the artist that I’ve become is because I really know what I want, I’m really ambitious, and I really want to be in charge of everything creatively,” she said.


    FKA twigs

    Photo by Kristofer Lenz

    There aren’t many artists who endeavor to take the helm of an audiovisual project like this one. FKA twigs isn’t just a stage name; it’s a moniker that captures the whole scope of Barnett’s media presence, from her studio recordings to her intricate, theatrical live performances to her strange and provocative videos. She’s young and she’s a powerhouse. Her story is of a woman who wasn’t content just to be seen in someone else’s vision. She wanted to change the way you see things to begin with, to challenge what you assume when you click “play” on a screen.

    She has. I’ve watched all her videos, and I’m still not sure what she actually looks like. It’s like twigs is a living glitch, an image just out of reach, not an object you can hold and claim in your head like she was when she was still dancing in Jessie J videos. Who Tahliah Barnett is on the street has little to do with who FKA twigs is on the screen. That’s a feat in itself — to make such a powerful image, project it onto the world, and still keep your humanity for yourself.

    LP1’s first words are taken from a 16th century poem called “I Find No Peace” by Sir Thomas Wyatt. It goes on: “I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain.” The album is ripe with pain, with frustration, with the same limbo the poem encapsulates. It’s about desire without fulfillment, about finding yourself outside of the context of what you want and whether you get it.


    “I don’t really believe in being lonely,” Barnett said to Rookie. “I believe in being alone, but if you’re lonely, that’s just bringing some extra emotions into it. Loneliness is self-indulgent. There’s always something to do when you’re alone.” Turns out that if you take some time off from indulging yourself, you can get a whole lot done on your own.


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