FKA twig’s set at Afropunk 2019 starts in darkness. The darkness of the stage at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn mirrors the darkness of the Sunday night sky, feeding one another in a continuos loop. Slowly, the stage fills with sound: distorted vocals singing “oh, oh, oh,” a drum machine beat that snaps, some synth reverb that ebbs and flows. After the bass lines throb out, the drum machine frantically quickens its pace until it explodes into silence, creating space for the vocals to take center stage. With this sonic switch, FKA twigs at last beings to emerge, dressed in a ruffle-ly white shirt-dress and a floppy hat covered in white feathers. In the beginning, it is only twigs on stage (as it also was when I saw her in Austin in November 2014 and Brooklyn in May 2015). Moving from “Water Me” to “Pendulum” to “Figure 8,” the sounds get bigger and bigger as she seamlessly makes the chronological glide from EP2 to LP1 to M3LL155X. In each of these songs, the drum machine programming is the lead sound, with twigs’s voice there to both fill in the gaps and push it forward. While none of these are my favorite FKA twigs songs, their being sequenced together at the beginning of the set reminds me that what is so revolutionary about her music (even five years after the release of LP1) is how she plays with time and space via those drum (and synth) sounds. Throughout the night, it’s the drum machine programming that will be the link between old material that situates itself in the realm of the experimental and new songs that, in the spirit of Lizzo and others, push on what pop might mean in the mainstream.
On the loudness of “Figure 8,” twigs loses the feather hat and transitions into “Video Girl,” a song that is an origin story of sorts for her. After its throbbing initial drum machine clash, twigs sings, “Was she the girl that’s from the video?” As her dancers join her on stage for the first time in the night, this line couldn’t be more tongue and cheek in the present moment. Far from being the girl in the video, Tahliah Barnett is now the one making all the videos and performances, having a heavy hand in bringing their sounds, visuals, and choreography to fruition. A modern-day mix of Aaliyah, Kate Bush, Grace Jones, Janet Jackson, Missy Elliot, and Tricky that sounds like all of them and like nothing else in the world all at the same time, FKA twigs, much like her performances, often seems larger than life. With the audience’s attention at a high in this musical moment, twigs cleverly switches over to “Good to Love,” her standalone piano ballad single from 2016 that first signalled a new direction for the artist. Taking a trick from her Congregata performances in 2015, twigs gives us the house remix version of the song, with pounding drums whose vibrations threaten to tear our bodies apart. Standing ten rows back and center from the stage, the aburptness yet connectedness of this transition momentarily throws me off guard. But then again, isn’t that what we’ve most come to expect—and love—from Barnett? As with the emotionality of life, you can be vibing one moment and then get thrown into total disarray once everyone comes down from the high. In the aftermath of vulnerability and emotionality, you’re left waiting to see where the vibrations will take you next.
At this point, the stage clears so that twigs can reappear in her Mary Magdalene outfit. Wearing a red dress and a blue headscarf, my ex-Catholic self notices a point of collision between Mary Magdalene (red) and the Virgin Mary (blue) in her dress. What is pure and what is perverse? What kind of sex is “good” vs. “bad”? What is love and what is lust? These are the questions that drive twigs’s repertoire, particularly on LP1, where sex, intimacy, and vulnerability are entanglements whose exact configurations change with each new heartbeat. Interestingly, this part of the show is comprised of three new songs. When twigs keeps repeating the phrase “a woman’s work” during the first song, I initially scream “Holy shit” into the night, hoping that Barnett is about to give us a Kate Bush cover and acknowledge the glorious fucking weirdness shared between them both. Alas, we do not get that cover, although we do get a simultaneous critique yet acceptance of heteronormativity also present in Bush’s work. This foray into heteronormativity makes me feel momentarily sad about how far FKA twigs’s show has veered from the queer collectivity of the Congregata performances, althoguh I try to nevertheless stay with her. These are (hetero) love songs, with chorus lines of “I’d die for you” and “Woud you make a vision on my love?” in the next and final songs, respectively. In these songs, the synths are strangely absent; instead, light piano and drum sounds create a sonic canvas for twigs to sing. In the background, the dancers move with antiqual masks, suggesting the timelessness of this (coupled, heterosexual) love. Having just endured a family wedding 1.5 months after a breakup, I cannot wait for this part of the show to be over.
In another moment of contrast, the next part of the show brings us to a selection of songs about drugs, partying, and BDSM. As the transition into this part of the show, twigs, who has now lost all the Mary Magdalene robes, does the sword fight that she’s been showing us all the rehearsals for on Instagram. When she begins her bridge from A$AP Rocky’s “Fukk Sleep,” it is a breath of fresh air, the psychedelic trap beat bringing us back to sonic territory that is more familiar from Barnett. Although twigs has never tried to be a hip hop artist, this part of the show accentuates how much hip hop production (especially on the drum machine end of things) has amplified her sound. In between “Fukk Sleep” and “Pacify Papi,” there’s a new song with a verse built around the narrative of “Date one… /Date two…” that feels less abrasively normative than the other new songs. [It’s my favorite of the new songs from the night (including “Good to Love” and “Cellophane”).] By the time we get to “Pacify Papi,” we go through the slow build of the sexual encounter with Barnett. It starts with her pleading vocals of “Pacify… pacify,” as it does on EP2. The synths that sound like warped disco strings come next, followed by that ticking hi hat drum machine beat. At the climatic chorus, the drums chomp away towards orgasmatic bliss, sounding both human and mechanical at the same time. As the video suggests, this is a song about playing with the boundaries between dominance and submission—only this time with the beat. The song sequencing itself also plays with this binary, moving back and forth between songs that dabble in each.
During the previous part of the show, we are teased with a pole that Barnett has not yet climbed upon. Soon enough, the lights on stage turn pink as the house beat from “Good to Love” spills over into “Lights On,” one of the most vulnerable tracks in twigs’s catalog. “Lights On” is an interesting choice for a pole dance. Although I’ve certainly had this song on in the background in my bedroom before, I’ve always heard it as being about the buildup that happens before you get to kiss (or more) someone for the first time. As someone who doesn’t desire physical intimacy without some kind of intellectual or emotional spark, this song (to me) recalls what it means (feels) to be touched by someone you care about. So, to watch Barnett blow up that meaning of the song as she climbs up that pole is jarring to say the least. But perhaps that’s been the point of this entire set, to blow up everything that we thought we knew about twigs—or about ourselves. As Barnett returns to the ground, a familiar mix of distorted vocals, dripping synths, and slowclap drums fills the air. Twigs now goes into “Two Weeks,” which ends up being the sing-a-long, crowd pleaser track of the night. As twigs dances alone at front and center, I’m reminded of how commanding of a presence that she’s been since the release of LP1 back in August 2014. I sense that everyone else in the crowd is feeling this too, as we all scream-sing the line “I can fuck you better than her” in joyous unison. Twigs is still here—and we’re all still here with her. We are all a mix of old and new, of what we (think we) are good at and the flaws that we carry with us. We’re all lonely and hurting, yet we still need people.
The show ends as it began, with just twigs, minimal lighting, and soft sounds. Twigs closes the show with “Cellophane,” her most recent single that both recalls the piano balladry of “Good to Love” but also reconnects with the electronic sounds of her older tracks. “Didn’t I do it for you?” Barnett asks over and over again, at times varying the exact wording of the question. It is just her and her voice now, on stage in front of tens of thousands of people holding onto her every last word. Of all of FKA twigs’s songs, “Cellophane” is the one that most creates a mood, as if Barnett took some cues from Lana Del Rey or Grimes on how to stretch out the affects of synths, drums, and voice into a feeling that lingers. After ten nonstop days at home and a summer that felt like a lifetime, I can’t help stopping and just standing with myself in this moment. Maybe the question that Barnett is raising is exactly the problem. Maybe there’s something (emotional care, physical intimacy, intellectual stimulation) that I keep looking for in other people that I need to find more of within—and for—myself first. Maybe I can’t keep giving all this away to others before I first give enough of these things to myself. This is not what I had thought I wanted from this weekend, to be left standing in a loneliness that’s been with me in some manifestation since childhood and that two years of writing fellowships activated in ways that were often uncomfortable and even painful. But as this song (and life) reminds us, what we want is not always what we most need in a moment. Suddenly, the entire trajectory of FKA twigs’s set for the night makes sense. She just took us through a feeling.