After releasing the Northtown EP in June of last year, Las Vegas native Shamir dropped his debut LP, Ratchet, this week, an eclectic album from an underground fascination whose tastes cover a wide spectrum of genres and influences. He’s reminiscent of ’90s house music, DFA Records, and Grace Jones, but would be perfectly content to sing only country and folk: He’s a serious Taylor Swift fan who can deliver a knockout rendition of Brandy Clark’s “Stripes.”
Armed with a one-of-a-kind voice, Shamir often reaches an airy, high-pitched register that finds strength in its imperfections. And, as he has often said, his distinct appearance and vocal abilities have been a source for initial confusion and discussion about his identity: “I looked like a little boy,” he told the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica. However, “when everyone else was becoming a man I was becoming a woman,” he said.
Gender and sexuality are the first things that everyone wants to talk about when they talk about Shamir. We’re starved for figures in popular culture who seek to break down the barriers that gender and sexuality arbitrarily impose upon us. Down to the post-gender or post-[insert noun here] level, it isn't immediately clear where Shamir fits on this spectrum. It really depends on who you read. Pitchfork's Mike Powell offered a word of warning in his recent profile of Shamir: "Attitudes like this leave him open to no small amount of projection: post-gender Shamir, post-genre Shamir, avatar for a hundred causes, evidence for a hundred arguments." Meanwhile, Vulture's Lindsay Zoladz refers to Shamir as a "post-gender star." Caramanica reports that Shamir is pansexual.
Regardless, we can all agree that Shamir and his art are exciting. And, in light of those who failed to recognize his talents before Ratchet's producer and Godmode label head, Nick Sylvester, a conversation about Shamir's androgyny is necessary: “Every other producer I worked with didn’t know what to do with my voice. They were, like, ‘What the fuck is this? What are you doing?’” he told Pigeons & Planes in May of last year. As Powell notes, this confusion was the reason Shamir quit playing country music, despite his obvious talents.
"[Sylvester] just went in with, like, so much confidence and knew," said Shamir. In 2014, after Shamir sent his demos to Sylvester via email, the two immediately found a groove together: “He loved it. He responded literally the next day after I sent it. He was, like, 'Let’s come to New York, make real music.'”
He never settles on one attitude or sound during Ratchet, but his style isn't scatterbrained so much as it is exploratory.
Since then, Sylvester has had no trouble finding a place for Shamir to fit in. If fizzy, club-ready sugar bombs, love-it-or-leave-it anthems, and soft-light meditations on heartbreak qualify as “real music,” then Ratchet is stuffed with it. Along the way we hear blaring, frantic horns, neatly crafted synth lines, and eerie strings that could easily fit in on a Radiohead record. He never settles on one attitude or sound during Ratchet, but his style isn't scatterbrained so much as it is exploratory. Both earnest and experimental, Shamir acts like every bit of the 20 years old that he is. The ongoing process that we go through to figure ourselves out during this time is easy to recognize here.
As such, Ratchet is a showcase for the many sides of Shamir's personality. He's ebullient and puckish on "On the Regular," daring anyone to think that they can just come in and out of his life like a complimentary 30-day subscription ("Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample/Step to me and you will be handled"). On “Make a Scene,” as Shamir readies himself for a night out, he’s happy to simply throw his hands up and let it all hang out, a shrug as much as it is an expression of lowered inhibitions: “Why not go and make a scene?” Who cares? Who’s watching? In "Hot Mess" we find an alienated and isolated figure who sorts himself out in the club by using dancing as a form of self-prescribed medicine.
Eventually, the technicolor overdrive of the first half ("Vegas" notwithstanding) gives way to a softer, slower comedown. Just as quickly as Shamir builds the beat, he strips it away to show the inevitable result of a long night out: the morning after. Anchored by the hook’s deep, swelling pulse, “Demon” is a mid-tempo ode to an estranged lover—the kind who brings out the worst in you, and vice-versa. Its composition sounds simple, but it allows the few parts to gain greater resonance as a result—a recurring pattern throughout the album.
Indeed, because of its minimalist aesthetic, Ratchet's rewards may not be immediately obvious upon your first listen, certainly not compared to Northtown’s “I Know It’s a Good Thing”—a booming house jam that belongs in any DJ booth. But return visits provide a deeper understanding of this madcap debut. Dark, frenetic, and complicated, Ratchet is so thrilling because of its refusal to settle down.