Ambiguity hangs from every word that comes out of 25 year old Tahliah Barnett’s mouth. She sings about sex, love, craving, deception—and sounds direct enough doing it—but what she leaves out of her songs is just as important as what she keeps in them. Her accomplice, producer and Yeezus collaborator Arca, couldn’t be more sympathetic. He matches her terse, enigmatic professions and weightless melodies with a magic show of slow-motion rhythms and phantom effects, making the best possible use of repetitious forms to emphasize and heighten the drama in her lyrics. EP2 is a pop record, but FKA Twigs and Arca pull it off so spectacularly that it sounds and feels like more.
In interviews, FKA Twigs admits that she likes to work quickly. “I don’t like to labour over things,” she says. “In my experience, the first idea is usually the best one.” That dedication to immediacy is most obvious in her lyrics. On opener “How’s That” Twigs sings a total of about six lines, most of them delivered in fragments: one question, one incomplete thought that could be read sexually or spiritually, and five moaned exclamations, which are repeated incrementally over a voluminous bed of chromatic noise. With every repetition Twigs and Arca add a level of intensity to the sung lines, giving mundane statements like “you know everything” a cathartic insistence and a special emphasis.
That is basically how the duo operates for the entirety of the record. Arca builds a house of mirrors around Twigs’s sparse lyrics, anchors it with a heavy low end, and adds bits of psychedelic color to help play up the uncertainty and immediacy of the written lines. There’s lots of pitch-bending and lurching rhythms, pulses that build pressure and then fizzle out, and awkward movements that stutter and hesitate before finally getting in line. When the strong climaxes do come, they seep into the mix like an injection of molasses. “Papi Pacify” practically explodes during its chorus; strings spasm and double over the top of each other; the wavering melody of the verse turns suddenly confident and dark; the rhythm picks up a thumping persistence, and Twigs’s voice rises to match Arca’s wave of noise.
It all sounds ecstatic, but Barnett avoids the usual love song clichés and digs into the meat of her subjects, pulling out absurdity, contradiction, and bathos for the attentive. She plays on the violent connotations of pacification, leaves the usual inside-outside dichotomy to be read either perversely or transcendentally, and pens a strange encomium to free love, which might also be a condemnation of objectification and prostitution—sexual or otherwise. Her videos, most of which are either directed or co-directed by her, reinforce that multiplicity. In “Papi Pacify” it isn’t clear whether she’s being dominated physically or secretly pulling the strings, and “How’s That” treats the human form like an obstacle to something altogether more fluid.
Nothing is as it seems, which is actually a nice summary of the EP. Twigs and Arca are working with a formula everyone knows. It’s pop music. But the way they handle their material disguises that fact. They know the shape and extent of their art, and rather than playing by the rules or trying to bust it wide open, they’re walking a middle path, finding smart ways to stretch, dye, and warp it. It’s tempting to call EP2 experimental, but it’s clear that FKA Twigs knows exactly what she’s doing.