‘Striking the right balance between forward thinking right-on-ness and inclusive just-want-to-dance-ness‘ – John Lynch on Shamir‘s Ratchet
A 20 year old hailing from Las Vegas, Shamir only released his first EP last year but has already moved quickly; signing to XL, an independent record label that manages some of the biggest stars in the world, and releasing his debut album, Ratchet, this week, complete with fully signed-up press coverage in all the major places.
In a week where Ireland may or may not just about manage to officially recognise being gay as something that happens, you’d wonder what your Iona Institutes and their ilk would make of the unashamedly ‘post-gender’ Shamir. Rather than worrying about what it means to be gay, Shamir seems to be so far ahead as to be wondering why we even make an issue of it. Androgyny in pop music has been around since the very beginning (since at least Little Richard, and even that’s only because the pop music business as we understand it starts to fall apart before him), but Shamir’s take on it is so natural and unforced that it completely upends years of attention seeking, moral majority baiting tactics by the likes of Bowie. In his own words, “I don’t do anything to make myself look more feminine. I naturally look and am more feminine.” It’s is not a thing Shamir is doing for the sake of causing pop controversy, it’s merely his starting point. He himself appears to be more interested in blurring the boundaries between human and puppet, then those between man and woman.
Inevitably, being young, black and not a rapper, Shamir has been compared to both Michael Jackson and Prince but, with Ratchet being light on traditional pop songs and heavy on danceable house grooves, he probably has more in common with early Madonna. Full of cowbell tapping and synth washes his music evokes a modern, gay friendly club land, the roots of which lie in the same kind of scene Madonna originally launched herself from. Like Madonna, he’s also not precious about being the one leading the music, almost all the beats and sounds are provided by New York musician and producer, ex-Pitchfork writer and general discoverer of Shamir, Nick Sylvester.
What he is in full control of, though, are his quite extraordinary vocals. Influenced by Nina Simone (whose voice his singing does actually resemble, if at a higher register) but also by the likes of the Slits, they jump around – half-rapped, half sung, androgynous in a literal sense – never worrying exactly what side of any fence they are going to land on.
Ratchet is filled with electronic, manipulated keyboard sounds that clearly have roots in club culture and disco music but there’s little going on here in terms of throwbacks. There are no Mark Ronson or Pharrell Williams style musical pastiches here, instead it’s all a very modern mix of interwoven styles, the occasional guitar noteworthy by virtue of being a ‘real’ instrument you can actually recognise. However, most tantalizing on here is the bonus track, “KC”, a simple acoustic guitar lament. The ‘bonus’ nature of this song (similar to the acoustic cover on last year’s Northtown EP) may be a sign that this is a part of his repertoire that he’s still trying to find a way of integrating with the rest. The slower, more R’n’B tracks on the album, “Demon” in particular, perhaps indicates a step in that direction, but clearly Shamir is not fully comfortable presenting himself as an artist with straight up acoustic songs.
Lyrically, Shamir presents his life as is, unpretentiously laying out his good and bad thoughts, usually side by side. Strutting opening track “Vegas” celebrates the city while admitting that it’s only good ‘at night’, and the high energy bounce of “Make a Scene” is pure hedonism, for better and for worse. One minute he’s cheerfully introducing himself (“Hi hi, howdy howdy hi hi, if everyone a minus you can call me multiply”), moments later he’s in a pit of despair (“My body aches, my mind’s a race, thinking about every bad decision, feels so alone”). Perhaps not life changing on paper but he does tap into the unique lexicon of youth in 2015, the title Ratchet being something I admit I did have to look up, and his delivery of lines like “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample” are never less than a compelling listen. At only 20, Shamir is still discovering the world and himself and his lack of pretence or interest in overthinking what he’s singing about adds a light and charming touch to the whole album. “Music is not sacred, music is for everybody” say the liner notes and this inclusive attitude is pervasive throughout the whole album. Shamir isn’t locking himself away, he’s engaging with his audience (In fact, feel free to contact him). Here, there might actually be more in common thematically with Sly Stone than any 80’s pop stars (incidentally the percolating beat and soul vocals of “In for the Kill” could pass for an updated take on some of Fresh-era Sly); he’s trying to bring people together, across all boundaries; gender, race or otherwise. Exuding a gleeful innocence he manages to pull it all off in an age where most listeners feel the need to thinkpiece everyone to death on the nature of privilege.
Ratchet is not a perfect album, the beats aren’t revolutionary, some of the lyrics breeze by wispily and it’s maybe lacking a few really killer songs. One also suspects that Shamir’s hands-off approach to the music might, should he work with other collaborators, lead to a drastic change in sound in the future; one hopes he doesn’t find himself in a room with Max Martin and Co, having his unique qualities flattened out. On the whole though, the album is a success. In a country that currently feels the need to dissect and define the exact ins-and-outs of people’s sexuality, it can sometimes take a pop record to rise above it all and remind us of the realities of the lives we care about. Striking the right balance between forward thinking right-on-ness and inclusive just-want-to-dance-ness Ratchet beats all-comers.