The theory of the uncanny valley states that when features of an artificial entity (frequently those created in robotics or 3D animation) move and appear almost exactly like the natural entity they represent, but differ ever so slightly, it can cause observers discomfort. Think about those weird kids movies that came out in the early days of 3D animation, or robots designed to pass as humans with faces that attempt to display emotions. We laud realistic CGI and detest the stuff that reminds us we’re seeing something false.
FKA twigs’ artistic vision dances cleverly at the edge of a similar valley. There are enough similarities to R&B and pop you’ll be familiar with, but she’ll push you out of your comfort zone with choices that, in the hands of a less powerful artist, would fail — and you won’t realize she’s still holding on with the other hand until she pulls you back in. She navigates this edge between seduction and revulsion like a gymnast on a balance beam, all evocative and powerful gestures where anyone else would wobble and just hope to keep from falling.
Beyond the push and pull of familiar and surreal elements in twigs’ music, there’s also a conflict to her identity, as clearly evidenced by her new EP, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”). At a time when twigs’ reality is becoming more and more public thanks to a relationship with Robert Pattinson, though, the challenge of teasing audience expectations and controlling an artistic persona would seem far greater. With this EP, twigs pulls it off expertly, fracturing and blurring her musical self.
That effort starts at the title of the collection. “‘Melissa’ to me is my personal female energy,” twigs (born Tahliah Barnett) recently told Complex. “It’s not a weird alter ego. It’s just my way of separating it from myself.” This distinction between alter ego and a piece of herself is small but important. This isn’t Chris Gaines and Garth Brooks. Melissa isn’t a separate person, but rather one facet of twigs, which gives her the ability to then play that piece against, with, and through the many others in her repertoire. “I wait all week for a moment’s break away from being told who I am,” she sings on “Glass & Patron”. Throughout, she asserts her identity while also rejecting the idea that it can be easily assessed or defined. She sings that line in the midst of a song in which she also asks questions about herself (“Am I dancing sexy yet?”) and allows for uncertainty (“Know what you want, what you need/ But only when you’re tasting doubt”). It’s a bold, dance floor-friendly song full of subtlety and strength. Pop stars often present a simplified existence — all angel or imp — while twigs encourages and empowers without pushing through that filter.
Opener “Figure 8” sets up the rest of the EP, unfolding intertextual references to its other songs and questioning identity. The song was inspired by voguing culture, twigs noting that she learned about her femininity through “boys,” but also rejecting neat summaries of what that differentiation means. “Boys growing boys growing girls into women,” she twists. “Teach me how to live life like I’m not a singer.” The song’s title comes from the hands weaving around the face, framing the self powerfully, insisting on itself rather than any assumed role it might suggest. It also has to do with infinity, the insistence of self outlasting all challenges. This continues on “I’m Your Doll”, in which twigs both sings seductively about a submissive role (“Dress me up/ I’m your doll/ Love me rough”) and drapes her vocals in eerie, off-key flourishes and scorched low-end. Desire and revulsion, beauty and grime: It all mixes together in the same way that no person is simple enough to sum up as man, woman, subject, object.
The thrilling “In Time” sits at the core of the EP, one of the most approachable tracks in twigs’ catalog, yet also blurring past, present, future, love, disappointment, sex, and aggression. The song details a relationship already broken, in the process of repair, and currently consummating. “You’ll be doing me right … In time you’ll learn to say sorry,” she offers, but only once her partner decides to “commit to making me happy.” You will, she insists. The visceral pull of that inevitability spins, growing with each entrancing build and hook, as she adds her own complicity: “When I’m holding you down, you be picking a fight.” She wants them to both improve and grow together. The key to the song, though, is the repeated “You’ve got a goddamn nerve.” While twigs can be cryptic, this is straightforward. Where her vocals are often ethereal, she spits this out in what might well be her speaking voice. Where sometimes she might seem more art project than human, this moment lays twigs’ humanity bare. The conflicting emotions, the push and pull — these are the sounds of a full person, and twigs conveys that totality in a way very few artists can.
Essential Tracks: “Figure 8”, “In Time”, and “Glass & Patron”