Traditionally defined by its veterans like Dev Hynes and Solange, the alternative R&B scene – along with much of the rest of the hipster subculture – has become increasingly saturated in recent years by more current artists like The Weeknd, whose overplayed tracks on the radio have secured them a place in today’s top 40 hits.
One such contemporary artist who is also classified under this genre but does not follow its current paradigm is the British-born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, better known under her stage name FKA Twigs. From singing to dancing to directing her own music videos, the multitalented Barnett has always found new ways to innovate and express herself as an artist, even going as far as giving the name Melissa an alternate spelling of M3LL155X, a transcription which also happens to be the name of her third and most recent EP.
While the songs on M3LL155X are much more cohesive than those of Twigs’ 2014 debut album LP1, they still feature the same eerie, avant-garde sound whose nuances of provocative sensual elements place the listener in a trance-like state. The EP starts off with the track “Figure 8,” in which Twigs’ piercing falsetto cries “Let me live/ Through your vice … Can you touch it? Is it real?” The lyrics, when combined with the slow pace of the song and Twigs’ dramatic vocals, provide a very ominous setting that may be likened to that of Frankenstein’s monster, but in actuality, present the theme of loving and accepting one’s self. What also sets this disc apart from its forerunners is Twigs’ experimentation with autotune featured in the tracks “In Time” and “Glass & Patron.” Though I am no fan of autotune, Twigs’ use of it adds to the eccentricity of her songs by giving them a haunting hint of Regan MacNeil that contrasts with Twigs’ soft vocals.
Given the fact that she also produced an entire short film to accompany the debut of M3LL155X, it is hard to discount the amount of work that FKA Twigs puts into her music and artistry. One may regard the short film essentially as a manifestation of the very sensual ambience conveyed by Twigs’ music. Nevertheless, the subject matter in M3LL155X is very dense and intricate. In defying the traditional conventions of sexuality, the images evoked in each of the tracks’ respective music videos make a daring statement about misogyny, gender politics and female autonomy while being both disturbing and erotic for the viewer.
The track and music video for “I’m Your Doll” is a powerful depiction of the submissive stance that women take in trying to please their men. Here, not only do we have Twigs presented as a blow-up doll who is later raped by an unknown man, but also scenes of her gracefully dancing around in silk pajamas asking that her man “stop playing with those other girls.” Meanwhile, the third track, “In Time,” features a pregnant Twigs asserting “In time … I will be better/ And we will be stronger/ And you will be stronger/ […] And make a commitment.” The lyrics represent the importance of self-improvement and the acknowledgement of one’s flaws in a relationship. The five tracks on Twigs’ EP definitely leave the listener wanting more from the British singer. Even so, compromising quality over quantity wouldn’t be worth it.
After having been exposed to M3LL155X, it would be erroneous to continue placing FKA Twigs in the same field as performers like The Weeknd and Janelle Monae; everything about the disc, from its vocals and instrumentals to its accompanying short film, defines Barnett as her own separate and distinct musical form away from this overly-congested genre that is alternative R&B.