Hot List: Shamir

Luke Fontana

Photography by Luke Fontana. Photographed at The High Line Hotel, New York. Styling by Marc Anthony George. Groomer: Angela Di Carlo. Suit and shirt by Original Penguin. Bow tie by Erickson Beamon. Socks by Falke. Boots by Dr. Martens.

In the third verse of his catchy track “On the Regular,” 20-year-old Shamir announces that he’s so wise you’d think he was 50. The boast is just one in a song full of them, but spend an hour with the saucy Las Vegas native and you’ll discover that this declaration is more than just a geeky attempt at hip-hop-style braggadocio. As he casually recounts how he rose from obscurity to become one of the year’s most promising new artists, it’s clear that he has the self-assurance, cultural references, progressive views, and talent to back up his claim.

“Music has honestly never been a challenge for me,” says the singer, clad in an acid-washed jacket he’s essentially turned into a tribute to his favorite bands: There’s a giant red patch of the Velvet Underground on the back, and buttons of the Beach Boys and the 1950s doo-wop group the Flamingos on its collar (Nina Simone is also a huge influence).

Performing comes easy to Shamir — born Shamir Bailey — partly because he’s had a passion for it for more than a decade. “Ever since I was 8, I was attached to the mic / Wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike,” he raps in “On the Regular,” a charming self-portrait as well as a playful middle finger to his haters. At 13, Bailey was strumming in country music competitions, and by the time he graduated high school, he’d secured a slot at SXSW for his punk act Anorexia, which he formed with his best girlfriend. He was working at his local Topshop and sending out eight-track demos of his solo side project in his spare time when he caught the attention of Nick Sylvester, head of the indie label Godmode. Three months later, they were recording his breakout single, last year’s “If It Wasn’t True.” It was the first song Bailey made on his drum machine.

“I’d played the demo, and Nick was like, ‘It’s so house-y,’ ” Bailey recalls in his high-pitched Valley girl drawl. “He lit the fuck up. But here’s the thing: I didn’t know what house music was. I thought I’d invented something.” He lets out a giggle. “At first I was like, Do I want to do this? Then I was like, Yeah, let’s experiment. Let’s get out of my comfort zone.

The risk has served him well. The sound he’s pursued — a mix of Sylvester-channeling disco, De La Soul-esque ’90s rhymes, and effects-heavy synth-pop — perfectly complements his soulful, androgynous tenor and astute songwriting. Ratchet may be his debut album, but it arrives fully formed, buzzing with youthful abandon while also presenting Bailey as a sort of winking, omniscient diva.

Its slinking opener, “Vegas,” which he wrote with his aunt, is at once a love letter to his iridescent hometown and an ironic depiction of an empty, vapid wasteland (“You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail / But if you’re living in the city, are you already in hell?” he asks). The party anthem “Make a Scene” is an ode to clubby, horny excess, but also tackles quarter-life malaise (“We’ve given up on all our dreams / So why not go out and make a scene?”). Meanwhile, with its lyrics “Just wanna sleep / There’s a missing link between what I want and what’s given to me,” the track “Hot Mess” touches on Bailey’s own desire to bury his head in the sand as he fumbles toward adulthood.

“I love coming-of-age stories because we’re all a coming-of-age story,” says Bailey, who identifies as queer (“I don’t identify as gay because I don’t identify as male or female,” he explains). But his reflections would mean nothing without the beats. “If people relate to the lyrics, I feel that,” he says, “but I also want to dance and have them dance. That’s such a beautiful thing. That’s how the world should work.”

Ratchet is out May 19. Watch the video for "On the Regular" below:

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