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Album of the Week

Review: Shamir Can’t Contain Himself on the Year’s Best Debut, ‘Ratchet’

Shamir's Ratchet
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Label: XL

If you pay attention to the sort of media that reasonably expects its audience to scroll through a list of 300 albums, you already know the fetching story of Shamir Bailey. A 20-year-old, male-pronoun-approving, gender-fluid African-American who grew up in Vegas and played country music until enough bizzers told him they didn’t know how to market it, Bailey found disco-house a more salable fit for his electric-fence falsetto, signed to professional game-changers XL and, in his un-minced words, made a scene.

Last year’s Northtown EP was centered primarily on the wonderful opener “If It Wasn’t True,” already a relatively low-key banger in the Shamir catalog, which this week expands to nearly an hour’s length with Ratchet, a ten-track LP that’s wonderful throughout. Bailey is such a folk hero for DIY musicians and underprivileged LGBT youths of color that he’s copped to feeling guilty about not having a worse experience growing up, that at worst he was dismissed as the weird guy with the guitar — which is more or less as fair as epithets ever get. It’s impossible to not root for him (though he should take “skinny fat ass” out of his Twitter bio).

But an inspirational story running alongside Bailey’s is that of 32-year-old Nick Sylvester, his producer and manager, who was once a clever, misanthropic record reviewer that drastically underestimated the staying power of “Hollaback Girl,” before getting canned from Village Voice for failing to include a disclaimer that a piece which took liberties with real-life acquaintances’ names was fiction. He later took up sour-candy grunge in his own band, Mr. Dream, before starting the Brooklyn-based Godmode label that fated a certain 19-year-old to reach out to him via email. It’s not that Sylvester’s no-bullshit electro is Shamir’s secret weapon or anything — the mononymous host has enough personality to fill an eggplant emoji-shaped parade float — it’s that he found a more direct route for sharing his idea of great music with the rest of the world.

Accustomed to covering Miranda Lambert and playing in a punk band called Anorexia, Shamir wears his differences out front (“This is me on the regular, so you know,” goes one of his best hooks, from the atypical hopscotch rap of “On the Regular”) and downplays his shrewdness; at just under 40 minutes, Ratchet is proof that the kid can self-edit his surprisingly traditional, if expert-level dance tunes. The bloody-sleeved show-stopper “I’ll Never Be Able to Love” from Northtown (and that impressive Lambert cover itself) proved he could belt a ballad, but even early supporters couldn’t have prepared for the threadbare “Darker,” which could be a coming-out anthem if he’ll let it: “You can’t contain the truth,” he croons to the end. Only Sylvester would’ve snuck a Scratch Acid sample into that one.

Matter-of-fact honesty is part of his charm — it’s nice to have a pro-breakup anthem like “Call It Off” invoke the words “mental health” — though it’s-over-when-it’s-over is another favorite Shamir technique. James Murphy himself could learn from the three straight highlights on Side A that barely brush the three-minute mark, and when Bailey goes on longer, he makes it count. The slow-motion bounce of the opening “Vegas” introduces elements like shaker and horn, block by block, before the familiar-yet-streamlined one-note funk of “Make a Scene” struts in. Cowbell-crazy closer “Head in the Clouds” breaks from the advice and scene-setting to do what five minutes of synths resembling 303-simulated farts and unraveling car alarms should: dancing out into the Nevada sunset with no more idea of What’s Next than any other 20-year-old.

What’s assured is that he knows what he wants in 2015 really damn well, whether he’s keening an indie-pop ballad about falling from grace gracefully (“Demon”) or leading a jazzy-mirrorball stomp (“In for the Kill”) to its bouquet of strings finish. “No more basic ratchet guys,” he chants on “On the Regular,” and he makes it sound like everyone can afford the choice.

More telling is the grand-slammed “Wish we left in it our youth” finale of “Youth,” an acknowledgment of shame that remains unspecified, and maybe the high-haired, huge-grinned wunderkind will come to wince at parts of Ratchet when he’s 32 as well, like the title perhaps. He shouldn’t; it’s an incredible album strewn with highlights obvious and sneaky, the rare debut that holds up the weight of its backstory, with the added brassiness of assuring us that’s just him on the regular. Now we know.