Make a Scene: Shamir’s XL Debut, “Ratchet”

The 20-year-old North Las Vegas crooner defies easy categorization.
By    May 22, 2015


Dean Van Nguyen don’t care, that car a throwaway, homes.

Shamir’s debut EP Northtown garnered plenty of Prince comparisons for its gender-bending vocals and purple-tinted pop melodies, and like a teen version of His Royal Badness, the Vegas native had a curious aura about him. It’s not easy to maintain an air of mystery at a time when social media and rolling 24-hour news have granted fans access to even the most trivial minutia of their favorite pop stars lives. Enter the young, enigmatic Shamir Bailey–a Rubik’s Cube of flashy styles and throwback Eighties sounds that listeners must try to solve.

Dressed in shirts to make Zach Morris proud and boasting a huge hi-top fade, Shamir forged the unlikely sonic concoction of flamboyant house and throwback disco twisted with introspective country and western sensibilities (Northtown featured a quivering cover of Lindi Ortega’s “Lived and Died Alone”). He heralded from what seems an unlikely corner of the world, Las Vegas–a place that, to an outsider and Hunter S. Thompson stan like me, seems damn near inhospitable. His voice was soft yet undeniably seductive. He can come across self-assured or cripplingly anxious with equal sincerity. Plus, he had the songs–Northtown encompassed wild dance numbers to pop your pleasure centers like crazy (“If It Wasn’t True,” “Sometimes A Man”) alongside captivating, meditative ballads (“I Know It’s A Good Thing,” “I’ll Never Be Able To Love”). And now with the release of his debut album Ratchet, the Shamir myth will only become greater.

Shamir presents a wholly panoramic depiction of a suburban Vegas I’ve never even heard of–where bold kids light up the weekends with brattish defiance. Ratchet plays like the greatest night of your young life, from the pre-party expectancy (the electro-chug of opener “Vegas”) to the peak-level buzz (“Call It Off’s” glitzy tech-noir), to the inevitable comedown (the emotive “Darker”). Leading us on this hazy odyssey is Shamir, whose high-pitched voice hangs between genders much like that of Antony Hegarty or Prince himself. But while Hegarty has sang beautiful and stark songs about LGBT issues and Prince has mixed sexual ambiguity and gender identity to explore a fuller palate of human emotions, Ratchet rings with confidence, dismantling notions that a barely out of his teens, androgynous kid needs cut music about processing his place in the world. “Wise ass nigga, you’d think I was 50/But I take your 50 after you take this spliff, see?,” he cockily asserts on lead single “On The Regular.” Ratchet is not a coming of age record. Shamir is already operating at a seriously high level.

A big part of the fully-functioning feel of the LP can be attributed to Nick Sylvester, a 32-year-old pop critic-turned-producer. Sylvester has taken Shamir—one-time member of a punk rock double act–and helped him forge a hybrid style that incorporates Donna Summers-style disco, lean Chicago house, funk, contemporary R&B and just a touch of hip-hop. All of this is cut with indie sensibilities into a mad concoction reminiscent of the the early Noughties’ dance-punk craze (“Make A Scene” is the kind of drunk conversational track James Murphy made his name with).

Building on Northtown, Sylvester and Shamir have added a whole stack of new toys to their cache. “In For The Kill” opens with a untamed, chopped-up saxophone segment that plays like a dancefloor siren call, while “On The Regular” sounds like producer and artist threw their color palette at a blank canvas to see what might stick. Over a dinky cowbell and throbbing synth, Shamir’s surreal shit-talk is delightfully random (“Haters get the bird, more like an eagle/This is my movie, stay tuned for the sequel/Seems so wrong, seems so illegal/Fellas in the back like a foul-ball free-throw”), crooned out in a casual half-rapped, half-sung style appropriate to its airiness.

The attention to detail throughout the record is stellar. Sylvester deeply layers each track, giving each an undercurrent of moving parts that adds to its wild ambiance. At any given moment you’ll hear a synth squiggle or two, shuffling off in any given direction, never to be heard again, giving Ratchet a living, organic feel despite the mostly synthetic orchestration.

While most of the whole dance-punk thing has aged terribly, Ratchet has a timeless feel to it. Shamir doesn’t falter once over the course of the record’s 38 minutes, serving up a debut album that provides a fully-realised representation of its creator. Coming down the stretch we get to “Darker,” a moody ballad of swooning strings and stern analogue synths, which offers the perfect accompaniment to Shamir’s raw, tremor- inducing vocal. It’s here that the artist’s fingertips touch the heights of Nina Simone, and he wields an even tighter grip on his ever-growing mythos.

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