Almost overnight, Shamir Bailey became something of a hero. At this time last year, he was releasing his first EP, the five-track Northtown, named for the Las Vegas suburb from which the singer-songwriter hails. Immediately, the EP showed a rare promise, garnering positive reviews for its clever melding of smart synthpop and disco-inspired beats. And then there was Shamir himself: an über-stylish youngster, barely twenty, with a voice that sounded surprisingly like Nina Simone’s. He was entirely self-styled, from the way he sang and the smart construction of infectious songs that lay somewhere just left of mainstream pop to his vibrant sartorial choices and nonchalant deconstruction of gender. Like Madonna, like Prince, like Beyoncé, “Shamir” became an immediate and singular brand, the kind of artist the world can identify simply, by only one name, because there is no one else to compare them to.
In May, Shamir released his first full-length, Ratchet, on XL Recordings, to pretty much universal acclaim. The record was produced by Nick Sylvester, the Godmode label founder and former Pitchfork staffer who recorded and released Northtown on his Brooklyn-based imprint after Shamir sent him some demos. Like the EP, Ratchet is an eclectic blend of genres — r&b, disco, rap, funk, house — bursting with hooks and sharp turns of phrase. It’s a collection of songs you can hear once and never get out of your head, a glorious whirlwind of party anthems that manage to be heartfelt and distinctive.
Last night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Shamir played what he said was his “biggest show in North America to date,” and his excitement over that fact was both palpable and infectious. Still, Shamir has an extremely charming air of nonchalance, a matter-of-factness born out of unassailable confidence buoyed to extremes by the unmistakable admiration in the room. It wasn’t quite the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but the diverse audience made their enthusiastic support no secret, taking every opportunity to cheer, sing along, and of course boogie.
Supported by live drums, a keyboardist, and a female backup vocalist whose voice occupied a register slightly below his own, Shamir started the set with relatively minimal album opener “Vegas.” The ode to his hometown made perfect sense as a launching point, its slow build reflective of the slightly sinister promises held in its lyrics. It’s also a great reference point for what’s influenced Shamir the most; like Sin City, the performer is imbued with a flashy allure that never falters but is hard to contain. He wasted no time in getting the party started, with the appropriately titled DFA-esque romp “In for the Kill” exploding into his standout single, “On the Regular.”
The response was immediate: hands waving in the air, the audience spitting every sassy word of the self-hyping anthem that broke Shamir wide open. Waving a finger at the crowd while crooning his most genius line — “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample” — Shamir never missed a beat, and neither did anyone watching; when he turned the mic on the Music Hall for its final “This is me on the regular, so you know,” everyone knew it indeed.
While it felt a little early to bust out such an enormous, crowd-igniting hit, Shamir has no shortage of jams, and it was actually nice to relax a bit and just enjoy the sheer beauty of his voice. The term “falsetto” not only implies but is actually defined as a kind of lie: singing octaves far beyond one’s natural range. The remarkable thing about Shamir’s vocals (and his whole persona, really) is that there is nothing false about it. Even when he talks his voice is youthful, androgynous, and snappy. He was warm and genuine at every turn, taking the time to introduce most of the songs by name. Before “Hot Mess” he implored everyone to dance (as if that weren’t exactly what everyone at the venue had come to do), and in the middle of the song he unleashed the dreads piled high at the crown of his head, allowing them to unfurl before snapping them with panache toward an ecstatic reaction like live electrical wires to shock his fans into a state of frenzy.
There is no doubt that part of that response came from Shamir’s total fearlessness. To cement the impression that Shamir can handle pretty much anything, he performed a soulful cover of emo-punk outfit Joyce Manor’s “Christmas Card,” followed by Ratchet’s quintessential love song, “Demon,” which he said seems to be “everyone’s favorite track” on the LP. After the applause died down, Shamir shhh-ed the audience emphatically, then belted the soul-crushing, show-stopping “Darker,” the queer-identified performer’s riff on that “It Gets Better” theme. It was a starkly poignant moment after a day of heartbreak, a ray of hope in the midst of a national tragedy and a potential beacon leading anyone feeling oppressed out of such darkness.
Ending the night with the zigzagging synths of “Head in the Clouds,” Shamir jumped into the audience for “dancing and hugs,” a kind of consummation of all the adoration in the room. His band then left the stage and Shamir posted up behind the keys for somber but beautiful closer “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” It echoes the sentiments and gospel vibes of “Darker” in that it’s an honest portrait of a vulnerable moment, but it’s a moment that Shamir already seems to have left behind. He sings of feeling like an alienated introvert who can’t really handle the attention or admiration leveled at him. It could be his most honest song, or it could be that in the short time since he wrote it, he’s learned to accept and embrace his role as ambassador of being true to oneself. No matter how quickly it happened, one thing is clear: The world needs heroes like Shamir.