Shamir Bailey was born in 1994, by which point I was 10 years old and already downloading shareware games using pre-AOL dial-up access. Neither of these details should matter in regards to Ratchet, Shamir’s first full-length record, except to explicate several points, namely that (a) Shamir is very young, (b) I am much less young, (c) the slope of technological advancement only grows steeper and steeper, (d) advancements in technology significantly impact culture at large, and (e) the concept of a millennial, defined as anyone born in the 20-year span between the early 80s and the early 00s, is a fucking crock. Even though I’m only 10 years older than Shamir, the generational differences between our ages are perhaps insurmountable. I didn’t even have a Discman until 1996 or 1997; Shamir was born into a world in which the MP3 existed, though admittedly in nascent form. In 2004, when I was discovering the joy of disco by way of DFA records — which even when downloaded, would be burned to CD — Shamir was in the 5th or 6th grade. Why does any of this matter? Well, the way I relate to this kind of music is dependent largely on the context in which it first found me, and I feel that it’s safe to assume that the same probably goes for Shamir, or anyone really.
I think of myself at the age of 20, listening to dance music that was almost always hyphenated with punk, a taxonomical distinction that implied sociological and/or ideological crossbreeding more than an aesthetic hybridization. On strictly aesthetic terms, Ratchet sounds an awful lot like the cream of the post-Y2K crop (at the very least, Shamir shares 2004’s fondness for cowbell). The thing about those artists is that they were critics in the guise of musicians, sending volleys against the dishonest and destructive narrative of white/masc superiority. The only problem is that most of these artists — Fischerspooner, LCD Soundsystem, !!!, Hot Chip, etc. — were themselves predominantly white and male. As yet another bloviating white man, I can’t fault those artists for their jokey self-consciousness, but I can see how being a vanguard on this front might necessitate taking a defensive position. Shamir, working a decade later within the same approximate confines, no longer has to deal with matters of subcultural insecurity or inferiority, and Ratchet is so confident and poised that I often find myself frustrated with it, though I must also admit that this problem has far more to do with me and my totally-subjective notions than it does with Shamir and his staggering precocity. Then again, Shamir isn’t paying homage to any one era in particular; to me, he sounds as indebted to the turn of the Millennium as he is to the artists from whom the dance-punks and electroclashists were cribbing. Ratchet exhibits a temporal and generic dimensionality that is completely alien to me, as a person who spent the most formative years of his young adulthood without immediate access to portable devices that could feasibly contain the entire history of a given genre.
The closest analogue I can muster is the current season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, wherein young, inexperienced, yet fully-formed queens who’ve grown up not only with ball culture, but also with reality TV and Drag Race itself, keep besting their older, less polished, more narrowly-defined competitors. Maybe I should be thinking instead of Alexander, weeping at the prospect of having no lands left to conquer? In any case, Shamir, as a young artist, is proof to me of evolution as a reality, progress as an upward arc, and also of the existential terror I feel when I listen to Ratchet and my mind hears a historical vanishing point. When I hear Shamir’s nimble and cherubic vocals, I often hear a question hanging in air: where can we possibly go from here?
Please forgive me for saying this, but younger Millennials — there needs to be a more accurate term for the generation of those born in the post-broadband era — are in many ways like the final girl’s friend in The Human Centipede, meaning that they eat last and are fed only that which has already been twice digested. Maybe that sounds ungenerous, but think of the limitations of such limitless access: Shamir, who is a prodigy almost without peer, can’t make the music he wants without being reduced to echoes and aftershocks of every single (lesser) artist who entered this world before him. It’s a shame that a record as immaculate as Ratchet can’t hope to make even a fraction of the impact that many lesser records have long since made. Ratchet is virtually perfect for its first eight songs, a feat that can’t be claimed by any of the artists I’ve mentioned thus far. That run, which begins with “Vegas” and extends all the way through “Youth,” also covers a broader range of ground than those other artists, veering between low-key electropop, glam house, dance rap, and indie power-balladry with exquisite discrimination. “Darker” is Shamir’s first and only stumble, but when measured against the rest of the record’s curve, it’s still solid, despite the dubious melodic choices he makes during the course of the song.
Perhaps it’s those dubious choices that allow me to love this album, instead of fearing Shamir, like he was sent here by Skynet. Thinking again of myself at 20, I recall the pressure to behave respectably, to present myself to those who comprised the oldest edges of my generational peer group, those whose begrudging admiration I sought through the bridging of small but irrevocable cultural differences. Exceptionalism is a hell of a thing, and though many prodigies peak early, would we still be anticipating yet another anthology of unreleased Arthur Russell songs had he never moved beyond the perfect-in-its-own-way folk rock that he recorded at the start of his career? The same goes for Scott Walker and for countless other young musical phenoms. And so, if my thoughts are framed by history, then I should know better than to expect an artist’s early work to be indicative of anything they might produce thereafter. Far be it from me to damn Shamir on the basis of confidence, consistency, or influence. Ratchet is one of the most purely pleasurable records I’ve heard so far this year, and one of the strongest debuts in several years; it gives me ample reason to be hopeful about the future, of generations, cultures that have yet to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. Don’t worry about Shamir; it’s his time, his scene to make. Worry about the rest of us, still young but already staring in the face of obsolescence.