FKA twigs (photo: Jon Bauer)
For Tahliah Debrett Barnett, it’s all for the gain.
Since 2012, Barnett (FKA twigs) has mesmerized many with her narcotic, dizzy trip-hop that is impossible to easily classify. From tap-shoe jester to cyborg insect to her recent take on Mary Magdalene, twigs struts, pirouettes, and crashes the border between avant-garde art and accessible pop with eerie, commanding ease.
What makes twigs a cut above her peers is her relentless pursuit of marrying a seemingly unending array of creative endeavors. A sprinkle of voguing here. Some Kate Bush vocal acrobatics there. Choreographing and performing a Spike Jonze-directed ad while recovering from uterine surgery (and splitting open your sutures)? Sure, why not. And then there’s the pole dancing.
Twigs’ studied view of dance informs every iteration of her art. And yes, the overwrought Kate Bush comparisons are strikingly apt. But instead of running up hills to make desperate deals, she’s running down them to be home with you if you just let her in. It’s this insularity of loneliness that colors much of Mary Magdalene, her latest work. Where much of her prior work muddied, blurred, and coated her vocals with sensual atmospherics, here her plaintive pianos and vocal consonants take center stage. The focused ballads have finally aligned with twigs’ restless energy and catapulted her and her listeners into the heavens.
There is no barrier, no stone unturned, no heartbreak, nor genre adherence that holds back her work. Her soprano soars, her sexuality is palpable, and her scorn is searing. When your world is torn asunder by a broken heart and physical ailments, where else do you have to go but inward? Mary Magdalene is a thorny, heartsick reclamation actualized.
And at her recent Oakland two-day stop at the Fox just days before her record’s release, twigs delivered what is arguably her best work in an already billowing catalog. Deploying countless costume changes and props, twigs traversed the stage, navigating her collection of hip-hop tinged tales of sexual desire, love, and loss to her adorning fans. Her small selection of dancers owned the stage, disappearing into the shadows when twigs would dip into ballads.
Showstoppers “cellophane” and “mirrored heart” dimmed the lights and placed twigs in a vulnerable, powerful stillness. Throughout, twigs and her crew navigated scaffolding, performed in synchronized pole dancing, pensively meandered, grinded with carnal yearning, and even yielded weapons. To say twigs delivered performance art would be the understatement of the year.
And scattered throughout the crowd, you could see the impact of her work mirrored back to her.
Headdresses. Victorian costumes. Satin and lace. Chokers. Exaggerated costume jewelry and makeup was on full display, showcasing just how much twigs’ peculiar interpretations of the world are at home with her fans. It’s almost as if this artistry is her coat of arms — a way out. For an artist that has seen her fair share of damaging, often racist attacks for her romantic entanglements with celebrities, fame is a dagger. Luckily for us, twigs isn’t afraid to fashion a sword.