Release Date: August 14, 2015
Less than a year ago, Tahliah Barnett transformed the set of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon into her own personal wind tunnel, ducking and weaving through a hair-raising rendition of “Two Weeks,” her most popular song as FKA twigs, while multicolored scarves danced around her. “I’ve never seen anything like that!” Fallon exclaimed. He’s also probably never seen anything like a scene in the short film accompanying her new EP, M3LL155X, which arrived as a Beyoncé-style surprise complete with stunning cinematographic accompaniment: During the clanging kiss-off “Glass & Patron,” she creeps metallic fingernails down her pregnant belly to (somewhat viciously) pull yards of flowing, rainbow-colored fabrics out of her vagina. As the 27-year-old former dance instructor’s enormously ambitious Congregata showed earlier this summer, the visual representation of her work and the music itself are becoming increasingly inextricable.
M3LL155X is effectively the third entry in an EP trilogy that began with FKA twigs’ introduction to the world, 2012’s EP1, four tracks of bare-bones Geoff Barrow production and a dancer-turned-singer still trying to find her voice. Its 2013 successor, co-produced by now-Björk affiliate Arca, was at once an extension and nearly unrecognizable as such, with the artistically NSFW videos for “Water Me” and “Papi Pacify” pushing boundaries as the range and depth of textures increased as well. This new, somewhat-surprise release leapfrogs ahead in her artistic development with the help of the ethereal yet sinister debut album, 2014’s uncompromising LP1, which at this point is still an anomaly in Barnett’s relatively short career. M3LL155X effectively sets the stage for what’s next (which, if the film and her most recent performances are any indication, will hopefully involve vogueing).
Barnett has never avoided provocative artistic choices: One need only look at the dark, muscular hands being pushed inside her mouth in the aforementioned “Papi Pacify” clip. To say her choreography and lyrics have become more ambitious and charged in response to Robert Pattinson’s admirers harassing her with racist tear-downs would do a massive disservice to her music’s increasingly crackling undercurrents. Still, it’s hard not to read at least some response to that negativity (which she has addressed in interviews while drawing a hard line between the artist formerly known as twigs and her private life) in some of M3LL155X. On “In Time” — which cues up during the short film while she arcs and grinds in all white as a man in a black muscle shirt smirks, like a perverse variation on Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” — she spits through Auto-Tune, “You’ve got a goddamn nerve” as if metastasizing into a monstrously powerful version of herself. “Every day, every day / You be testing my strength.”
And on M3LL155X, she does seem to be growing stronger, testing the boundaries between light and unfathomable darkness, the breathtaking and the nauseating. “I’m Your Doll” shimmers into existence like the mirage of a male fantasy, with twigs’ breathy post-coital murmurs sugarcoating the song’s creepy clouds of thunderous feedback. The metaphor of herself as a “loaded gun” isn’t exactly subtle; the song’s video implores us to view her face made up like a pristine china doll atop an inflated body that a man slobbers all over. After he eventually (presumably) has orgasmed, her corpus is seen deflated flatly on top of barely mussed sheets. The EP’s most unsettling moment, however, might be “Mothercreep,” scuttling and whirring with what sounds like clock organ machinations before going completely silent for ten seconds; then FKA twigs sinuously sings, “I creep for you / I’ll be there soon,” and later howls in the background like a wolf at the moon.
Referring to the version of “I’m Your Doll” she wrote at 18 in a recent Complex interview, FKA twigs said, “It’s so the opposite of who I am now as an artist. It’s completely submissive in a way that I don’t even understand or connect myself to anymore.” That’s why her performances onstage and in the studio are so transfixing: Her body says it all while her composed face remains distant, only her mouth moving to sing, as if not connected to anything below the neck (Beyoncé’s face, by contrast, gives it all away). M3LL155X is yet another extension of herself, at once futuristic — the harsh, distorted, expletive-peppered rasp that opens “Figure 8” — and nostalgic, with the rattletrap pops and locks reminiscent of Baby Girl‘s best work; it’s another crucial dystopian fantasy and unflinching self-examination from a Margaret Atwood with better choreography.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that FKA twigs’ Fallon performance was over a year and a half ago when it was actually in November of 2014. It has been updated to reflect the changes.