This is the stuff of the strangest fairy tales. Once upon a time, an androgynous 20-year-old with a Tumblr and a penchant for the Muppets sashayed out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, signed with XL Recordings, hugged his way through South by Southwest and released the best debut of 2015 thus far. The rumors of pop’s oncoming genderqueer revolution (fueled in part by Miley Cyrus’ recent comments) grew legitimate almost overnight. And they all lived happily ever after.
Okay, the happily ever after remains to be seen, but everything else is true (and slightly stranger than fiction).
Even if you’re late to this narrative, remember the main character’s name. Shamir is the most interesting vocalist to emerge in years, evading both ends of multiple binaries, most notably the gender one. No surprise then that Ratchet finds Shamir continually suspended between disparate territories and opposite forces. Album opener “Vegas” paints the neon-lit excesses of his hometown (“Ka-ching, ka-ching, endlessly / Pick and choose / Secrets never leave the scene”) over a minimalist synth riff. He is the baddest bitch on the block with the softest touch. He polishes the wall-shaking beat of “Hot Mess” to a dark and sexy shine.
But who better to flirt with both sides? At 20, Shamir straddles the gap between Millennials and Generation Z. Positioned by birth for the role of voice of our rapidly shifting youth culture, he takes on his destiny with effortless zeal. He understands his crowd and their language – he called the album Ratchet for crying out loud – and uses it to elevate the old school house influences beyond nostalgic revivalism. With a nod to big butts and the lyric, “Just can’t make a thot a wife / No more basic ratchet guys”, on the irresistible “Call It Off”, the album makes a phenomenal case for the present. Who said Mr. Right Now can’t also be Mr. Right?
Forget the now for a moment. Shamir’s countertenor would stop you midstep no matter the decade. In 2015, it sounds reminiscent of young Michael Jackson, Kendrick Lamar, and, hell, even Dionne Warwick. The comparisons keep coming once you start: Grace Jones’ sex-as-power attitude, “Material Girl”-era Madonna’s sequin-lined sass, David Bowie’s gender-bending persona(s). And every single comparison attests to Shamir as a student of pop culture. The kid did his homework, to say the least.
We all benefit from his studies. Like Jones, Madonna, and Bowie, Shamir scans as a left-of-center pop star for the people of Earth and probably Mars and Jupiter, too. And he fills the role with finesse, fusing soul, funk, pop, disco and house without so much as letting a hair fall out of place. It’s marvelous to behold and impossible to keep from dancing along.
About those banging beats – the album’s prime example of mega-funky danceability lies in “On the Regular”, which oozes with unmatched confidence and unshakable individualism. The same could be said for all of Ratchet, which acts as both Shamir’s introduction to the world and the soundtrack to his coronation. Meet the new boss. He’s way different from all the old bosses.