With Shygirl’s second EP of industrial murk and braggadocious hip-hop, the rising British artist says that, even when you think you know someone, what you see is only one of their many sides. That the EP is titled ALIAS darkens the edges of her thesis. An alias is less a nickname than a shadow identity used by someone evading detection, an alternate self more concerned with the alleyways than the everyday.
Shygirl claims to jump among four distinct aliases throughout the EP’s wobbly, night-lit club cuts. In the video for ALIAS highlight “SLIME,” these aliases appear for the first time (Shygirl dropped the video 10 days before the EP’s release). She neglects to name them directly—only the press release accompanying the video formally introduces Baddie, Bae, Bovine and Bonk. The EP’s lyrics likewise do little to distinguish these characters from one another, though clearly, little overlap exists between Bae’s glamorous blonde ‘do and Bonk’s, uh, clown-like makeup. Even if these aliases remain imperfectly distinguished from one another throughout the EP, Shygirl’s consistently puffed-up swagger manages to illuminate her nuanced but aggressive persona.
If ALIAS is Shygirl’s most explicit attempt at identity play, then that’s her collaborators’ tendencies rubbing off on her. Throughout 2020, Shygirl has worked closely with Arca, a modern master of gender and sexuality deconstruction; on “SLIME,” she gets a production assist from SOPHIE, an artist who just as powerfully toys with these same concepts. As a result, the Shygirl of ALIAS is universally in command of her sexuality no matter which alias she attempts to occupy. Not that her enthrallingly harsh 2018 EP Cruel Practice was anywhere close to prudish, but the Shygirl of ALIAS cut “BAWDY,” which fluctuates between ghastly clanging and unsettling whisper-crooning, is in her fullest control yet: “Is it good / Are you feeling right / Come and get up in it.”
And that’s nothing compared to the boasts of “FREAK,” the title of which hints at what’s to come. As the track’s extraterrestrial club beat shifts into double time, Shygirl lets you know what’s her fantasy: “Arse up, titties out, know you like it when they bounce / Got the neighbors on the phone, telling me to cut it out.” When she says, “Why ride with the devil when I could give you hell?” on the Sega Bodega-co-produced “TWELVE,” it’s not a threat—it’s a statement, in full confidence, that she’s the baddest and the best.
Of course, this is supposed to be an EP about multidimensionality, so even if Shygirl’s dominant mode is unflagging sex-positivity, she makes occasional space for more tender emotions. “She only wants a good time / Nice things / Long nights / Riding in your fast car / Past all the city lights,” she raps on “SIREN,” which knocks like a techno tune but strangely veers into EDM-adjacent pastiche in the chorus. If it’s both sonically and lyrically somewhat out of place, that’s just a testament to Shygirl’s you’ll-never-see-it-all thesis (and the fact that it’s the only ALIAS track she didn’t co-produce). While Shygirl mostly presents as an admirably salacious woman in spaces that regularly degrade and objectify Black women like herself, there’s a soft side to her, too.
This gentler persona best intersects with Shygirl’s joyously immodest side on “SLIME.” A full hip-hop personality in the verses—flow so strong it’s unclear how she’s catching her breath, trunk-rattling bass, nocturnal synth blips, lyrics like “She came to fuck / Tell me now / If you’re looking to get down”—finds a gentler contrast in the chorus. Although she brags “She’s for the streets, bitch” as the percussion ramps in intensity, what follows is deeply vulnerable: “And that’s fine.” It’s an admission of sensitivity, a confession that the judgment and castigation non-men often receive for merely presenting their sexuality wears down on even someone as powerful as the bold characters dominating ALIAS, whether Baddie, Bae, Bovine or Bonk. Even if it’s tough to determine which alias is on the mic, Shygirl’s complexity steals the show.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”