What does it mean for an artist to release a “mixtape” in 2022? Many of us understand the term to describe a carefully curated playlist that anyone with a tape machine can produce at home. In industry-speak it comes from hip hop: originally it referred to DJ-mixed compilations put together to complement radio play, and then later to artists’ “street albums” – projects that didn’t go through the typical label vetting and distribution systems, and were released online to fans for free.
Now, an artist from any genre can release a collection of music and call it a “mixtape”: everyone from the dance-pop artist Charli XCX to the Swedish indie musician Jens Lekman is at it. Seemingly at odds with its very purpose, a mixtape might now be put out by a label, and is likely to appear on streaming services – just as an album would.
Still, a mixtape’s sensibility sets it apart from an “album”: on a mixtape, an artist typically features alongside numerous collaborators, creating a laid-back feel where they experiment with different sounds. These releases are often long – less selective than a polished album’s standard ten tracks – which also tends to lend them the quality of a work-in-progress. For the most devoted fans, a mixtape can be an intriguing glimpse into an artist’s deep cuts, or less commercial work. At other times, a mixtape reminds you of the true value of a producer – someone to tell the artist what to lose, when to stop.
Caprisongs, the first mixtape from FKA twigs, is indeed loose, but exuberantly so. The record follows two critically acclaimed studio albums, LP1 (2014) and Magdalene (2019), that showed off Twigs’s dedication to genre-bending – exploring electronica, R&B, industrial and choral music. On these albums she worked with high-profile artists including the British songwriter Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange), the Venezuelan electronic producer Arca, and the American rapper Future, establishing herself as part of an international throng of artists who take sonic experimentation seriously. Her sensitive, rhythmic songs were always anchored by her formal training as a dancer – first in ballet and then as a backing dancer for pop acts including Kylie Minogue and Ed Sheeran. These first records from Twigs, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, had an alluring tautness about them, as though she were en pointe for the duration of their production.
So the freewheeling nature of Caprisongs, Twigs’s first solo release since she filed a lawsuit against her former boyfriend, the actor Shia LaBeouf, accusing him of sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress (he has denied many of the allegations) is a revelation. Individual tracks hold the intensity that Twigs does so well. Lead single “Tears in the Club”, a collaboration with R&B superpower the Weeknd, is a melancholy ode to the grief that follows the end of a relationship, the pair’s vocals strewn over an ethereal dancefloor beat. Every one of the repetitive phrases in “Careless”, featuring Canadian songwriter Daniel Caesar, is performed with sensitivity, resulting in a song that feels intimate, even as Twigs’s voice retains its impressive, distant falsetto. Taken together, these contrasting songs sound both more considered and less inhibited than anything we’ve heard from Twigs before.
Three “interludes” on the 17-track tape contain snippets of conversation. “Are we recording? ’Cause this is good,” says one voice, before it is offset by another. Such samples in songs can often seem staged. But with Twigs’s light production touch – gentle electronics and fractured piano chords burble underneath – they are personal and sincere. Listening feels like eavesdropping.
These songs are more playful than Twigs’s previous releases. They borrow more from pop – as well as reggae and Afrobeats – and have catchier riffs. Even on “Oh My Love”, one of the few tracks on which Twigs does not have a named featured artist to rally around her, she finds catharsis in singing about a disappointment in love, ad-libbing and filling out her lyrics with a charming breeziness: “Everybody knows that I want your love/Why you playing, baby boy, what’s up?” she calls, again and again.
But the tape’s highlight is “Darjeeling”, featuring Midlands-born Jorja Smith and young London rapper Unknown T, and borrowing from the 1996 Olive song “You’re Not Alone”. Each of the vocalists muses on their memories of home – Walsall, Crystal Palace and the Linford Christie Stadium in Wormwood Scrubs are mentioned – until they settle on the idea that home is wherever you want it to be.
“I’ve known that I’d make it since I was a young girl,” Twigs sings. Here – laidback, open-minded and surrounded by friends – it really sounds like she has.
“Caprisongs” by FKA Twigs is released by Young