With his latest release, Heterosexuality, pop renaissance man Shamir channels trauma, rage, and feelings of angst, and in response to our troubled times, he’s released an album of uncommon beauty. Employing sharp, pointed lyrics and applying his gorgeous, androgynous vocals to a dark, lush industrial synthpop, Shamir’s album makes a significant musical contribution to the ongoing debates over identity, queerness, and sexuality. Looking to musical cues of the 1990s, Heterosexuality feels bracing, fresh, and ingenious.
Working with producer Hollow Comet, Shamir returns with a record that explores development and growth in his sound. His LP debut, 2015’s Ratchet, was a burst of electronic-laced pop and dance music. The album was a critical success, but his subsequent releases were thoughtful indie-pop records that were intimate. But on Heterosexuality, the singer embraces a bigger, more expansive, almost cinematic sound that echoes shades of Trent Reznor, Trevor Horn, and 1990s-era Prince.
The album opens with the explosive “Gay Agenda”. Marching on a chugging beat and lots of buzzy synths, Shamir’s lyrics critique confining and reductive labels, singing with his extraordinarily pretty voice. “You’re just stuck in the box that was made for me / And you’re mad I got out, and I’m living free / Free your mind, come outside / Pledge allegiance to the gay agenda.” He co-opts the possibly toxic term “gay agenda” (a popular canard among the right to scare homophobes) to embrace individuality.
The song pairs perfectly with the album’s second track, the dramatic “Cisgender”, which explicitly argues for a queer space in which people are free to choose their identities. As he sings, “I’m not cisgender I’m not binary trans / I don’t wanna be a girl, I don’t wanna be a man / I’m just existing on this godforsaken land / And you can take it or leave it or you can just stay back,” he’s tossing defined labels and identities in the air, forsaking easy, facile defining for something far more personal.
Like with “Gay Agenda”, Shamir appropriates a slur, “Abomination”, to declare a political and social manifesto. Rapping over a grinding, undulating beat, Shamir casts himself as a profit and pundit, a pop Cassandra who sees a grim future for his listeners. The song serves as a worried and urgent call, tackling social and economic injustice. Seeing through superficial liberal sloganeering, he astutely points out, “Unless it’s just for optics, say my life matter, but it’s just an option/madam vice president a cop, don’t cop shit, being pushed to you as progress, for profit.” Shamir’s contempt looks at a broken system that needs a reset, and he refuses to indulge in happy talk.
There’s a powerful intellect on Heterosexuality, with the songs taking on weighty issues. But there are moments of euphoria on the album. On a very bright spot, the sprightly “Marriage” is a lovely tune that celebrates a hard-won self-affirmation. And on the UK soul soundalike, “Stability”, Shamir gets a moment to be the radio-ready pop star as his agile voice skates on the catchy urban-pop beats. It’s a testimony to Shamir’s breathtaking talent that he can put together an album as emotionally and sonically complex and ambitious and still deliver a concise, smart, and cohesive album.