The Cool Irreverence of Shamir

(Courtesy of XL Recordings)

Shamir was first introduced to a wider audience when he released the video for “Call It Off” during the 2015 YouTube Music Awards. He went from critical darling on the Internet to having his image projected out in meatspace a la electronic billboard in Times Square. Yet, the 20-year-old from North Las Vegas was met with sideways glances rather than warm embraces. The androgyny of both his colorful appearance and his high tenor drew heteronormative vitriol, for which Shamir responded in kind on Twitter by confidently announcing his gender fluidity.

As someone who strived for country stardom, experimented with punk and is now settling into a mode constructed by synthesizers, Shamir seems almost like an avatar of attention-deficit Millennials. His inspirations range in popularity from Joyce Manor to Taylor Swift – a by-product of a generation raised on having numerous browser tabs open at once. Everything is fair game. If there was a blueprint for how a young pop star should look, sound, and act in 2015, Shamir would be it.

Ratchet, Shamir’s proper full-length debut, is a showcase of this shape shifting star’s ascendance. The album continues with the vibrant house mood of the Northtown EP and solidifies his ability to fit comfortably in any surrounding. It begins with a slow vamp about the alluring fallacy of Las Vegas’ bright lights. The song paints Shamir as a new age lounge lizard in a neon lit casino bar cautioning patrons about the oeuvre of excess to be had. That skin sheds effortlessly in the next instant on “Make a Scene,” a track that embodies the nihilism of the city’s “what happens here, stays here” ethos.

The anything goes attitude of “Make a Scene” is tongue-in-cheek when played on its own. It can be read as ridicule of tourists from the viewpoint of a native who considers knitting and listening to records a more constructive past time. On the album, the song actually serves to set the tone for flipping the mantra of his hometown. Letting go and being who you are shouldn’t be a limited exercise for a certain locale; it should be natural.

Shamir raps his way through “On the Regular” with a confidence that not even rappers who have ‘rapper’ listed on their resume can instill in their delivery. He has to, or else the lyric “This is me on the regular, so you know” is rendered moot. He also includes a little call-and-response on “Call It Off” by declaring, “Just can’t make a thot a wife/no more basic, ratchet guys.” Even though “Call It Off” centers on the titular, euphoric scream for a break up, it’s his rapping on the song that becomes the most memorable due to his charisma. Lest we forget, this is the same guy who was first introduced to the world as a singer then had the chutzpah to reintroduce his singularity with rhymes. His assured sense of self oozes onto anything he touches.

Shamir is also keenly aware of both the criticism that he faces and the criticism that is to come. On “Hot Mess,” he takes all of the labels thrown at him and remarks “I guess I just don’t belong” before the drop of a pulsating refrain of “damn, he’s a hot mess”. You can picture him dancing in front of a projector displaying the nasty YouTube comments with unabashed glee. “In For the Kill” is an acknowledgement that some people will be out for blood once his image comes across their purview. He knows it’s coming and, in his words, he knows the sacrifice.

The majority of the album is an uptempo, danceable release fueled by Shamir’s nonchalance. Its only water break from the sweat drenched florescence is “Darker,” a ballad that drives home all of the existential points that might not have been heard while dancing. He only sees a bright future for people to live without the social constructs that dictate gender and race. “It only gets darker if you expect it to,” he belts to all of his contemporaries who might be cynical or pessimistic about the future. He speaks as a person who already knows; as if he were transported to us from a not-so-distant fate.

Ratchet‘s lasting effect is that it doesn’t just ask you to get up and dance; it commands you. “Listen up, I’m saving you,” Shamir says with a kitchen sink full of authority on “Call It Off.” His presence and his composure on the record give him star potential to rise beyond Internet sensation. He’s bubbling and ready to go pop at a moment’s notice. Shamir shows here that he’s ready for the world. It also showcases that he really doesn’t give a damn if the world is not ready for him.

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