XL Recordings, 2015
You would likely get lost trying to find the etymological roots of the slang term ‘ratchet.’ Is it a corruption of the word ‘wretched’? A way of putting down people who act too ‘ghetto’? A kind of wrench? In any case, 20-year-old Las Vegas native Shamir Bailey has taken the word as his own and used it as the title of his highly anticipated debut album.
Last year, Shamir’s single “On the Regular” was a bold statement of positivity and self-love. The waifish, androgynous young man proudly proclaims “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample,” and states without qualms or fear “this is me, on the regular, so you know.” The strutting disco beats and playful analogue synths that characterise his music create a strange mix of the streets and the runway, where DIY hip-hop and R&B meet the glamour of dance music. In reclaiming the word 'ratchet’ it seems that Shamir is saying, “Call me what you want. I’m just doing me.”
A large influence on Shamir's music appears to be the underground LGBT scene of the 80's and 90's as captured in Jennie Livingstone's influential documentary Paris Is Burning. It's not hard to imagine the cast of downtrodden but brave souls that populated that film voguing and strutting to the relentless kick drum and house pianos of Ratchet album closer "Head in the Clouds." Shamir's androgynous style and refusal to be forced into a box provide a modern take on some of the themes of the film, filtered through the lens of his own personal experience.
Shamir’s outsized but sweet personality is the perfect antidote to the faceless house divas that have populated the world of dance music for so long. Every lyric on the record shows his unique and intriguing point-of-view. Album opener “Vegas” is the perfect example; from a song about the titular city you expect thumping, hedonistic party beats, but this is a slow, sultry jam featuring a saxophone murmuring along with Shamir’s breathy repetition of the song’s title.
Even when the pace picks up, as on the incredible night-on-the-town anthem “Make a Scene” or the powerful kiss off “Call it Off” (where Shamir declares “No more basic, ratchet guys") Shamir is an absolutely magnetic presence. His high tenor is thin and doesn’t have a huge amount of range, but he is capable of delivering great tenderness and then in the next moment throwing some premium shade.
Each song is composed of the same or similar elements - a four-to-the-floor drum machine beat and myriad synthesisers - but they are deployed with neat production tricks and embellishments from producer Nick Sylvester and Shamir’s gift for melody and dynamics. The occasional ballad, like the absolutely gorgeous reggae-tinged “Demon” or the gospel-ish “Darker,” provides a perfect breather so that the bold dance pop sound doesn’t become cloying or tiring.
Second half highlight “In for the Kill” is a jaw-dropping song that hits like an atomic bomb, but also pulls off the tricky manoeuvre of tying together strands of soul, pop, disco, hip-hop and even jazz and turning them into a unified whole. There are a couple of missteps on the record - namely “Hot Mess” and “Youth” which are slightly too long and lack the immediacy of the songs surrounding them - but for the most part the record meets the standard set by its best songs.
Shamir is a young man who clearly understands music, and while that may not be impressive on its own, when you take into account his totally endearing and fascinating presence on record - his peculiar mixture of toughness and timidness - everything falls into place. Stunning at its best and merely promising at its worst, Ratchet is one of the finest and most fully formed debut albums to come out in a very long time.
Ratchet is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.