One of the more interesting developments in R&B over the past several years is how far afield the genre has strayed from form. Where other strains of popular music have grown muscular — from Adele’s panoramic croon to Carrie Underwood’s arena-ready bombast, not to mention the influence of TV singing competitions “American Idol” and “The Voice” — modern rhythm and blues has turned inward. The beats are usually electronic, almost always minimal, and the voices clear and unhurried.
The conceit is an obvious one: Don’t let the production overwhelm the song, its singer, and certainly not the listener. Frank Ocean, Jessie Ware, Miguel, the Weeknd, and, on the hip-hop front, Drake all espouse the value of economy, the idea that you can always do more. But you shouldn’t. There’s power in restraint, in the act of suggestion.
British singer, songwriter, and producer Tahliah Barnett takes that approach to celestial heights on her arresting new debut under the name FKA twigs. Set for release on Tuesday, “LP1” arrives with the grace and mystery of a smoke ring, just out of reach but so beguiling to behold.
Her arrival has the illusion of seeming long in the making but also quite sudden. Raised “in the middle of nowhere” in Gloucestershire before relocating to London, Barnett wasn’t well known when she self-released two EPs, with the intentionally mundane names “EP1” and “EP2,” in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Barnett, who’s 26, had been working as a singer and dancer who had appeared in music videos by Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran, and Jessie J, but it was hard to pry her first batch of songs from your head. The simplicity and directness were intoxicating. (That FKA refers to “Formerly Known As,” by the way, after Barnett changed her original performance name because another artist was already going by “Twigs.”)
It’s no slight to say Barnett has a thin but expressive voice, which she uses to sweetly trill certain notes and curl around phrases like a python. At times her reserve is so pronounced that it makes fellow British singers such as Sade, who’s a touchstone for this album, sound ostentatious.
On first blush, not much happens in a song like “Pendulum” — just five minutes of foreplay, until you realize that’s the whole point. Over skittering but faint beats in the background, an Enya-like sense of serenity in Barnett’s voice permeates “Closer.” “LP1” is the kind of soft-focus album that the late American R&B singer Aaliyah might have made.
It’s no slight to say she has a thin but expressive voice, which she uses to sweetly trill certain notes and curl around phrases like a python.
The album’s one wild card is “Two Weeks,” the first single, whose chorus really should come with a cigarette you can smoke in bed afterward. I’d love to quote its more salient points, but I’d also like to keep my job. Here’s a taste: “Pull out the insides and give me two weeks/ You won’t recognize her,” she sings with a raw intensity that somehow never feels raunchy, but rather visceral.
Mostly, though, Barnett’s sensuality is understated, seductive for all the ways she could love you. “When I trust you/ We can do it with the lights on,” she sings on “Lights On,” repeating the phrase so many times that it becomes an invitation. “Am I suited to fit/ All of your needs?” she asks on “Hours,” going on to assert, “I could kiss you for hours” and later: “How would you like it if my lips touched yours?/ And they stayed close, baby, till the stars fade out?” I think we know the answer.James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him
on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.