November 25, 2020

The Second Coming of Shamir Bailey

9 min read

“I think people don’t understand that I don’t talk about my music,” says Shamir Bailey (aka Shamir) via Zoom while wearing a black-and-white bonnet. “I want people to fucking know, like, I care about everyone else more than my career.” It goes without saying—Shamir isn’t a traditional self-promoter. After all, the Nevada-born, Philly-based artist stumbled, somewhat accidentally, into pop stardom with Ratchet, his Godmode-produced debut for mega-indie label XL Recordings. The album’s lead single, “On the Regular”—a splashy dance-pop juggernaut that wiggled its way onto the Top Electronic Albums charts—catapulted Shamir to buzzy new heights, before ultimately becoming the driving force behind his hard pivot away from pop music.

For his latest offering, the mononymous, self-titled Shamir, the 25-year-old sheds the overproduction of Rachet and the lo-fi, ad hoc palimpsests that characterized his post-Ratchet recordings (Hope; Revelations; Resolution; Room; Be the Yee, Here Comes the Haw; Cataclysm), instead showcasing his depth as a lyricist and musician, especially in matters of friendship and love. One of its singles, “Running,” touches on being part of a toxic friend group. Elsewhere throughout the album are short “skits,” which Shamir describes as “field recordings of me with my friends—little 15-second clips of just being ridiculous.” As one of his friends, I like to think that with Shamir, I finally see—and hear—him as he’s always wanted to be seen and heard.

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I met Shamir outside one of his 7th St Entry shows in Minneapolis in 2015. I was standing with my sister, so shy that I was unable to meet his eyes, too worried about whether I seemed cool enough—whether my identity, as I had been performing it online, aligned with my real-life presence. It didn’t and it still doesn’t, but that’s not always something someone outside of yourself can see. We had been corresponding online for months, but parts of him were still unknowable. I was drawn to his jovial nature. His natural sheen. His wry observations and self-assuredness. His ability to code-switch fluidly. His cartoon-like vocal tics. His thoughts, as he expressed them, often seemed well-developed, like he’d already fully ruminated on any topic we were discussing.

shamir

“I realized this year, I have to be the representation I want to see in the mainstream.”

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CHARLTON ANTHONY DIAZ PHOTO BY SHAMIR..

I remember being super impressed by his entire being—the fact that he grew up in the Nation of Islam, that he refused to play songs from his critically and commercially acclaimed debut album, that he’d performed on an American late-night talk show. (It took everything for the latent sycophant in me to not ask him what Stephen Colbert smelled like.) And he was happy to regale me with tales of his celebrity encounters, whether it was doing a line of coke with one of my favorite bands (which shall remain nameless) during his younger days of debauchery, bonding with Zoë Kravitz at Coachella about their shared love of the English rock band Savages, or eating a cheese sandwich on a dance floor with Marina Diamandis.

I also found it impressive that Shamir met all those people because he is one of them. His talent has propelled him into the alternative Black canon alongside greats like Lenny Kravitz, Santigold, and Prince. His entire life and career, in many ways, are an homage to genre- and gender-bending Black artists, full of interminably malleable, infinite artistic possibilities. But even within the alt Black canon, as someone endowed with the sort of interestingness and imagination that lends itself well to celebrity, Shamir is decidedly anti-celebrity—an outlier.

His talent has propelled him into the alternative Black canon alongside greats like Lenny Kravitz, Santigold, and Prince.

When Shamir and I reconnect in this “new normal”—first over Zoom, then over email—I immediately dive into the tough questions. I ask, “Do you want to be more famous than you already are?” He responds, “Definitely, I would never say that before this year, but I realize I have to be the representation I want to see in the mainstream.” Does he experience career jealousy? Yes, but “mostly because I work twice as hard as a lot of my contemporaries for, like, a quarter of the attention or even critical analysis,” he says. In the same correspondence, he somewhat counterintuitively states that he is lazy and disorganized, but I argue that there’s a method to his messiness and that his method actually requires more work.

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I disagree, at least partially, with his assertion that he’s “very easy to work with.” Granted, he qualifies this with the condition that he feels “safe and respected,” but I think for him to say that ignores the fact that anyone with a strong sense of self or deeply entrenched singular perspective runs the risk of alienating someone, or being perceived as difficult, despite their best efforts to be accommodating. I’ve seen it happen with Shamir, but then I’ve also seen the beauty that can emerge when he finds a kindred connection in someone just as stubbornly original—and self-preserving—someone like Rina Sawayama, with whom he collaborated on “Tunnel Vision,” a mesmerizing lullaby of a song.

Quarantine has given me perspective on my friendships, especially the ones that couldn’t be buoyed by an internet connection, that maybe I always suspected were devoid of substance but that I couldn’t quite disentangle myself from without a good enough reason.

Shamir and I are both water signs—prone to sensitivity and sentimentality, though he has found ways to guard against Internet trolls—unless they go after his friends. “I think I have to choose to be unbothered most of the time because as soon as I invest an ounce of emotional energy into it, then it’s over,” he says. “As water signs, we just can’t dip in and out of the ocean. Once we in, we swimming for at least a good while, you know?”

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In a sort of juvenile way, I’ve organized all of my friendships around shared interests, and in a very adult way that I hadn’t considered in pre-COVID times, I’ve organized them around a shared politic. With Shamir, that can mean skewering pop culture and the music industry while having a laugh when prominent liberal celebrities fall into woke boobytraps—a millennial pastime that some try to pass off as “the work” but is simply another futile means to alleviate late-capitalist ennui. What we do for each other, politically, is aid each other as we negotiate our boundaries as artist-workers fueled by a similar amount of class anxiety, as we both come from working-class backgrounds.

I’ve been thinking about the many potentially lucrative opportunities Shamir has turned down because something about them didn’t align with his principles, from soundtrack inclusions to a licensing deal with McDonald’s. Shamir’s always had shrewdly discriminating and selective taste. It’s done him a world of good, even if it’s made him poorer, less popular, his world smaller. Since getting dropped from XL and leaving Nick Sylvester’s hit factory, Godmode, on his own accord, he’s continuously leaned into a scrappy, DIY sound, eschewing everything that originally made him a household name among the NPR tote bag-wearing set. He became possibly the world’s first one-hit-wonder who refused to chase the mirage of a second hit. In some ways, he is the anti-Solange. His untethered nature stands in stark contrast to her cautious, hyper-stylized aesthetic. His public persona is the least carefully crafted one. It’s telling that he counts her among his inspirations.

shamir

“I want people to fucking know, like, I care about everyone else more than my career.”

Photo Illustration by Charlton Anthony Diaz. Photo by Shamir.

After releasing Hope—Shamir’s first album following Ratchet—he experienced a marijuana-induced psychotic break, landing himself in a psychiatric hospital newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When he returned home to Las Vegas, he made his next record, Revelations with a $70 microphone and a four-track. Hope and Revelations are messy and unpolished, which I always assumed was a creative choice, but according to Shamir, it was a financial one: “[Those albums] saw my vision through, but I was held back a lot, production-wise, because I had to produce myself, out of necessity.”

With Shamir, he was hoping to arrive at a more accessible sound—one that might help re-establish himself as an artist without forcing him to relinquish his hard-earned authenticity. “At first, my vision was like, you know, 45/15, but we worked with professional producers. They’re like the optometrist, you know? You go there and they help you get to 20/20,” he says. “I didn’t have to compromise my vision on behalf of my shortcomings as a producer, because I was working with good producers who listened to me and wanted to see my vision through.”

It hasn’t been hard to forge a deep friendship with Shamir because he doesn’t go to great lengths to conceal the innermost parts of himself. In fact, within the first year of knowing him, he sent me a high-contrast photo of his butthole (it was for art!). Early on, though, I was afraid to disagree with him. I was gauging his temperature. I’d been burned by people like him before—people who are impossibly shiny, cool, and in possession of an intangible “it” quality. I wanted to be sure I felt safe with him.

shamir

“I was working with good producers who listened to me and wanted to see my vision through.”

Photo Illustration by Charlton Anthony Diaz. Photo by Shamir.

I also was under the impression that our sensibilities might be too opposed, that maybe he was the sort of humorless younger millennial forged on Tumblr with an outsized concern for the screw-ups or lapses in the moral judgment of famous people. The sort of millennial with a chaotic assemblage of tastes and a propensity for talking like a quirky character from a fictional Amy Sherman-Palladino or Diablo Cody universe. The type of person who may not actually have a real personality, but rather, exists as a simulacrum of others’ personalities. You know, the type who expect moral purity from everybody but themselves, from celebrities especially. Also, my own trust issues hindered me from appreciating his ability to identify a certain “it-ness” and only surrounding himself with others who exhibited “it,” people like his Accidental Popstar signee Grant Pavol or Rina Sawayama. Would he like me less if I eschewed writing and art for a less public vocation?

Shamir’s tendency to gravitate toward “it-ness” has also turned against him occasionally. Ironically, his own naturally glowy aura and light—his gauzy spiritual Vaseline!—that I was so afraid would burn me, set me ablaze, like shine theory gone awry. Eventually, I figured out that I was in the presence of a deeply benevolent, extremely generous person with a real personality, as well as enviable emotional self-mastery. His playfulness naturally cancels out any treacly, Tumblrite impulses. There isn’t a careerist, social climb-y bone in his body. He’s what many artists, musicians in particular, wish they were: the real motherfucking deal.

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