At the end of a terrific SXSW set, Shamir Bailey climbed over a partition and proceeded to hug random audience members. The looks on some of the male faces in the crowd, mid grasp, were priceless: a mixture of astonishment, hesitance, and thrill. By wrapping arms with rapt onlookers, the dance dynamo sealed his triumph with connection. A collective embrace happened onstage earlier, too, throughout his performance. By getting physical, Shamir transformed what was figurative into a literal expression of joy. This exhibition of warmth was no empty gesture. Shamir, aged 20, sashays ahead of the pack as our most charming, open-hearted, and endearing showman. He’s also one hell of a salesman. There’s a reason the room ate from Bailey's outstretched palm with such relish. He took Stubb’s BBQ back to a church basement in mid-1980s Harlem. For a few moments last March, Austin burned, girl.
Shamir needn’t work so hard. The songs off his debut album Ratchet, so springy and indelible, can bear the brunt of fame’s incipient burden. (Should it ever come.) Their milieu spans various genres: disco, house, funk, pop, R&B, and a sprinkling of hip hop. Shamir’s voice, pitched high but not exactly feminine, works as a reverse prism. Sent through his countertenor instrument, these wide-ranging styles sharpen into a laser focus. Throw in, as a bonus, the kaleidoscopic production techniques of GODMODE founder Nick Sylvester. When these jigsaw pieces snap together to reveal the whole, Shamir brushes the dust of the past with a flick of the wrist. Left behind is a technicolor explosion, the burst of an aural confetti cannon.
Pop sparkle is a natural fit for Shamir, whose heroes include the Velvet Underground and Taylor Swift. (That makes two of us.) By comparison, his 2014 Northtown EP now sounds half formed. Even so, the EP planted the seeds for Ratchet as it traveled along some weird, if also welcome, paths. Sylvester produced that work too. But he hewed closer to the lo-fi aesthetic of Anorexia, Bailey’s D.I.Y. duo with Christina Thompson. On Ratchet, Sylvester crosses out Northtown’s variety in favor of consistent, blinding neon. I do miss the EP’s final, country road detour. Gone too are its bargain basement sonics, and for the better.
Reared in North Las Vegas, Shamir pays fealty to his hometown here and there. He named Northtown in its honor. And Ratchet opens with “Vegas”, a sultry, and semi-ironic, ode to the Sin City. But his debut LP soon takes a sharp turn away from the Strip and instead explores the interior world of any twentysomething. The record brims with the piss and vinegar of youth. “Youth” is, in fact, the title of a Ratchet highlight. A fabulous homage to Donna Summer, the song’s vintage precedes Shamir’s birth by a couple of decades. How do you like that? File it along with this wonderful album’s many purposeful paradoxes.
Despite its cornucopia of solid gold tunes, Ratchet won’t be Shamir’s big commercial smash. Queer music often requires a filter, be it via an established pop star, or just the long passage of time. I doubt Bailey cares about stardom either way, so it’s the mainstream listener whose loss is so sorry. After all, each of Ratchet’s best tracks deserves to zoom to the top of the Hot 100. A world where “Make the Scene”, “Head in the Clouds”, “On the Regular”, or “Call It Off” become radio hits would, no doubt, be a better place to live. “In for the Kill”, with its world-conquering saxophone bounce, shames “Shake It Off”, note for note. People, let’s make it our own Song of the Summer.
Still, Shamir’s debut falters on a few tracks, and given its short runtime, these stumbles can be jarring. “Vegas” sets the scene with a vital bass thump, but it’s a snoozer when heard on repeat. The slower tracks, “Demon” and “Darker”, can be lovely, the former in particular. But Shamir hasn’t yet perfected his role as a balladeer. He seems as bored as us. “Hot Mess”, true to its name, is Ratchet’s only complete misfire. Its deadening hook, which wears on the listener more and more with every return, nearly ruins the track.
So, Ratchet isn’t an unqualified triumph. But the album doesn’t have to be perfect to be a success. Its highs are high enough that its lows can be forgiven, or forgotten entirely. Ratchet consolidates Shamir's many talents: the sassy lyricist, the virtuosic tunesmith, the unperturbed diva. Those talents are singular, and they’re sure to flourish on future releases. The New York Times recently published a piece about Shamir. The Gray Lady called it “Pop Music Catches Up to Shamir”. If only it were so. I suspect Shamir will remain a secret for some time. What a juicy secret he will be, though. B+
Ratchet is out now on MP3, CD, and vinyl.