The pop industry machine ain’t dead yet, but it’s certainly wheezing. How else can you explain the death of American Idol, or how Wrap Fetty’s independently released “Trap Queen” has been dominating the charts through YouTube clicks and Soundcloud presence? Ok, maybe those are isolated incidents, but just imagine how the suits are quaking with the sudden rise of Shamir. Sure, there are probably conniving industry types working behind the scenes here, but the pop alien that is Shamir is unfiltered, loud and electric, brilliantly not giving a fuck on Ratchet.
Shamir’s backstory seems tailor-made for the self-made star. Growing up in North Las Vegas, he played punk and country tunes, but nothing was quite Shamir enough for him. He only released his excellent EP Northtown last year, but his “Prince singing over House” vibe was enough for XL (home of Adele, among others) to snatch him up. It might have been a gamble, if not for Shamir’s otherworldly charisma and dat voice. We can’t go along much longer without talking about it.
Shamir’s sky-high countertenor is one of the fiercest weapons in modern pop, incisive and buoyant all at once. Even when he’s spitting tricky rhymes on lead single “On the Regular”, backup Shamirs decorate his words with harmonies. It flows from delicate to soaring in seconds, a versatile layer to his game, adding spite to “Call it Off” or sweetness to “Demon.”
Of course, just to make it unfair, he’s also got a sharp ear for hyperactively catchy hooks, a talent that’s been obvious since the one-two smash of “On the Regular” and “Call it Off”. Shamir smartly doesn’t start the album off with those two infectious tracks, instead setting the scene with “Vegas”, a love letter and a middle finger to his hometown. Over surprisingly restrained bass, Shamir details the “pa-ching, pa-ching” sounds and blinding neon, hinting at a city offering both heaven and hell.
Most of Ratchet’s first half doesn’t hold itself back. Just as “Vegas” shimmers into silence, in comes the raunchy bounce of “Make a Scene” with Shamir prescribing, Andrew W.K. style, an unhealthy dose of partying to cure the blues. And if you thought the delirious synths of “Make a Scene” were over the top, you ain’t seen nothing yet. “On the Regular” and “Call it Off” are placed right next to each other, a duo that’s pandemic levels of catchy. “On the Regular” has Shamir showing off he can rap just as well as he can sing over sweltering synths, only to go into a gorgeous interlude where he warns “don’t try me, I’m not a free sample!” before flipping right back into jittery verse. “Call it Off” is more traditional pop than “On the Regular”, but it’s still glorious in its ’80s-throw-back bass line and dozens of Shamirs declaring, “This time, it’s not my fault!” The entire world is fired if it doesn’t become the dance anthem of 2015.
Ratchet’s second side has Shamir experimenting more. “Youth” has twitching percussion that swoons under Shamir’s high croon before finally bursting into a body shaking chorus. “Darker” opens with a chamber like intro, complete with rolling drums and an orchestra that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Björk album. It suddenly cuts out, leaving Shamir over organ work that sounds like it was ripped out of the Legend of Zelda. Minor layers are added, but “Darker” is all about Shamir’s vocal work in the spotlight.
“Demon” might be the best thing Shamir’s recorded yet. With weird vocal sample, chiming keyboards, and a nod to Maranda Lambert in the chorus, it’s sort of a quick primer on what exactly Shamir does. Additionally, it’s his best lyrical work as he describes a partner that turned him away from “the honor roll” into a weird, weird world. “We were fit for survival / No books but the Bible / Hold out with the gun,” he sings recalling a time that seems as thrilling as it was dangerous. If this mystery person helped Shamir become Shamir, someone give them a medal.
It might have been nice to see a few more songs that had Northtown’s slinky DNA, but Ratchet seems to be charting the birth of the star. His work also feels refreshingly modern. In a recent Tweet, Shamir said “to those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.” Add on the universality of his lyrics, and Shamir might be one of the most widely appealing weirdos of all time. Finale “Head in the Clouds” has Shamir predicting his own domination of pop music and, with its infectious piano and swirling keyboards, he’s probably right. Ratchet proclaims two truths: ain’t nobody got time for “basic ratchet guys”, and everybody got time for Shamir Bailey.