Shamir effortlessly believes in himself in a way that marks him as far wiser than most on the pop scene today.
When Shamir dropped his Northtown EP last year, his lo-fi take on R&B and late disco/early house music immediately marked the then-19-year-old as an artist to watch. With his androgynously pitched tenor and the aching-yet-mildly sardonic lyrics to the arresting single “If It Wasn’t True,” Shamir recalled prime-era Prince, albeit with the innate professionalism of His Royal Badness replaced with an endearingly sloppy enthusiasm. His full-length debut, Ratchet, allows the intrigued to take stock of Shamir’s progression over the last year, to see how Shamir has changed and matured to get together an LP’s worth of material.
If anything, Shamir sounds more stridently childish on this album, released by indie heavyweights XL, than he ever did on Northtown. A bratty streak runs through the album, even in the minimal beats and cynically laid back croon of opener “Vegas,” which stumbles forward, enraptured, like a drunk tourist walking the Strip. But the song’s emotional pitch, neither high on the city’s overlit simulacra nor nihilistically devoted to exposing their seedy underbellies, itself feels like a strange, leftfield choice that stakes out Shamir’s unusual perspective from the start. The song’s threadbare beats mask a panting sexual tension that slowly rises to the foreground over the track’s duration, and by the time the singer gets to lines like “Come and play, there’s no place you’d rather be/Than Vegas,” you get the sense that he actually means it.
Elsewhere, Shamir unleashes his full cattiness. References to ratchets and thots abound, and his delivery is the kind you might normally associate with an unscripted vlog, all uneven cadences and overeager punchline delivery. Pre-release single “On the Regular” epitomizes this approach, launching into motion with a bouncy “Hi, hi, howdy, howdy, hi, hi” before turning into hype rap of the most giddy, benign order. No one could be intimidated by lines like “Ain’t got no time for you ratchet-ass goons/And just settle down, listen to my tunes,” but the whole point is to communicate Shamir’s winsome giddiness more than any claim to greatness.
Classic house synth moans are featured on the track, as is the incessant, loudly miked clack of cowbell. These sounds give away Nick Sylvester’s sympatico production, as do his odd turns in other songs, like the jazz saxophone that is double-, no, triple-stacked on top of itself at slight delays to create a confusing din at the beginning of “In for the Kill,” a cacophony only made more dissonant by the four-four beat that slowly settles in under it. The disco keyboard chords of “Make a Scene” are interrupted by EDM squeals and aqueous electro bass, while “Call It Off” sounds like it could have been cut in the mid-’80s by one of the Chicago house pioneers.
If the production and Shamir’s delivery often flirt with false nostalgia, Shamir also buries genuine reflections just underneath the surface of his glibness. “Demon” is a straight-up ballad about a lost companion whose departure is felt so acutely that Shamir blames the person for his own corruption in the absence of supervision. “Darker” is even more affecting than “Demon,” as Sylvester mostly reduces his contributions to background atmosphere to better let Shamir’s plaintive vocal speak for itself as he sings koans like “It doesn’t get darker/Unless you want it to.” Even “On the Regular” is revealing about Shamir in its own way, a catalogue of bravado phrased in such a way as to not be aspirational, but confessional. On the song and on the record, this response is a way of presenting the listener with Shamir as he is: a bundle of contradictions and precious tics that are delivered without an ounce of self-consciousness. Shamir may sound and act like a kid, but on the basis of Ratchet, he effortlessly believes in himself in a way that marks him as far wiser than most on the pop scene today, let alone those his own age.