Another year, another calculated, cookie-cutter pop star vomited up for mass consumption by the music industry’s hype machine. Every now and then, a vibrant peacock struts out from behind a flock of homogeneous pigeons into the mainstream consciousness, defying all the odds. Shamir Bailey is the chosen peacock of the moment. Like fellow queer artistes Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes Da Killa, Bailey’s delightfully androgynous image and sound, continue to disassemble the über-macho stereotypes that have dominated the U.S. hip-hop scene for decades. Beyond boxes and genres, his debut album Ratchet follows through on the promise of last year’s critically-acclaimed Northtown EP, and sees the 20-year-old arrive in front of the public eye, creatively unscathed and defiantly confident.
Like a massive beehive suddenly knocked off its branch by a strong gust of wind, the early Bailey buzz has now erupted into a frenzied swarm. From being crowned a post-gender pop star, to being categorized as genderqueer and gender-fluid, Shamir’s identity has been the subject of blog-blathering scrutiny for over a year. Ruth Gordon said it best in the cult film Harold and Maude, “Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.” Well, this little bird refuses to be trapped by the limitations of any label. In a recent Twitter response, he perfectly summed up his feelings on the matter: “To those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.” Enough said.
While the songs of his debut are undeniably impressive, Ratchet’s success lies within the palms of former Pitchfork contributor and Godmode label founder Nick Sylvester, who also produced Bailey’s 2014 EP. An e-mail correspondence set the wheels in motion in the summer of 2013, and the lyrically introspective Northtown was born the following year. From R&B-splashed house stompers to a gorgeous reading of Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega’s “Lived and Died Alone”, the much-lauded, five track collection resulted in Shamir being snatched up by XL Recordings, with Sylvester returning as producer.A bigger budget has yielded less emotional nuance, but the major label transition hasn’t sacrificed Bailey’s personality in the process.
Last year’s breakout single “On the Regular” is still a massively brilliant track nestled within the context of its Ratchet sisters. A bright, bold brew of sassitude and playground whistles, the song blends the sounds of ‘90s house with hip-hop, disco-pop, and a generous dollop of cowbell on top. Christopher Walken’s bovine instrument of choice appears throughout the record, popping up in “Make a Scene”, “Hot Mess”, and in the kaleidoscopic closing track “Head In the Clouds”. Somehow, it all steers clear of eyeball-rolling, cartoonish kitsch. Those expecting the rest of the album to be speckled with Shamir’s rapid-fire verses might be disappointed, for Ratchet seems to find inspiration in the sounds of Hercules and Love Affair, Frankie Knuckles, Grace Jones, and Prince more than it does Azealia Banks’ hip-house.
The record kicks off with the minimalistic “Vegas”, a moody synth and sax-slinky ode to his Nevada hometown. It’s an understated introduction to what is essentially a party record, but like the ballads of Northtown, it is proof that Shamir’s artistic choices are as unpredictable as his colorful persona. Not until the album’s penultimate offering “Darker” does Shamir really rein in the party horses and display the vulnerability found on the tail end of his EP. With an intro that recalls Natasha Khan’s arrangements on Bat For Lashes’ debut, the meditative track, with its lush strings and stately percussion, winds up being one of Ratchet’s most poignant highlights.
World-weary at such a young age, Shamir picks apart adolescent nightlife in the cynical, half-sung, half-spoken electro-anthem “Make a Scene”. Both here and on the breakup number “Call It Off”, which contains a chorus dropped down from the gods, Sylvester’s neon-streaked production and big, bouncing beats prove to be the perfect foil for Bailey’s delivery. Elsewhere, the funky, horn-drenched, Stevie Wonder strut of “In For The Kill” and the wailing climax of booty-shaker “Youth” jack up the pulse, but it’s the confident closer “Head In The Clouds” that really mesmerizes. Disorienting, dissonant synths twist around Bailey’s soaring voice as he serves up ‘90s house diva realness to a rapturous, throbbing beat.
There are a few shrug-inducing moments scattered throughout. The restrained “Demon” sounds like a treacly B-side off of Cocknbullkid’s Adulthood, while the attitudinal “Hot Mess” might be the perfect soundtrack for a fall fashion runway, but the overuse of modulated vocals becomes monotonous by the four-minute mark. It is a testament to the palpable chemistry between Sylvester and Bailey, that the 39 minute set rarely falters.
It all began with an acoustic guitar, country music competitions and a Dr Groove drum machine. From growing up in the desert outskirts of North Las Vegas across from a pig farm and fronting the lo-fi punk-pop duo Anorexia to being poised as one of the biggest breakout acts of 2015, Shamir Bailey’s ascent to “indie-music darling” status has been astonishingly swift. Gender identity labels aside, the reality is that no one would be discussing him if the tunes weren’t well crafted or the talent wasn’t there; so, as the old saying goes, “any publicity is good publicity.” Shamir might not be the most conventional of vocalists, and Ratchet might not be the perfect pop record “On the Regular” hinted it could have been, but this is still one of the most dazzling debuts of 2015.