Preceded by the cutesy, meme-able singles “On the Regular” and “Call It Off,” Ratchet, the debut album from genre- and gender-bending hipster house singer Shamir Bailey, attempts to reconcile Shamir the Internet Phenomenon with Shamir the Artist. It’s a difficult balancing act, but he executes it with a skewed grace.
Whereas Shamir’s 2014 EP, Northtown, sounded like a bedroom disco diva taking his tentative first steps into the club, Ratchet is an infinitely more confident and assured effort. Take the muted funk of the Neptunes-style “Make a Scene”: Shamir approximates a sex-kitten purr as he coyly refers to himself as a “party machine” and capably belts the song’s final chorus amid erupting sirens and malfunctioning video-game noises. “On the Regular” is similarly cheeky, all rattling cowbells, bubbling jazz organ, and so-absurd-it’s-cool wordplay (“Illy to the fullest, you can call me cancer”) until Shamir weaponizes his distinctive countertenor with some of the coldest threats ever crooned in a head voice (“Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample/Step to me and you will be handled”).
Following the thot-shaming of acid house-banger “Call It Off” and the clustered vocal harmonies of “Hot Mess,” it quickly becomes obvious that Shamir can come up with snappy, slang-laced disco choruses in his sleep. But it’s when Shamir launches into “Demon,” a ballad about an innocent being happily corrupted by an all-consuming relationship, that he realizes some emotional depth. Shamir’s desperate designation of he and his lover’s attached fates is the album’s first hint at vulnerability (“We’re all in the fast lane/It’s me and you together, baby, always”), and the track’s subtle production flourishes, from the attack-less opening synth chords to the second chorus’s syncopated string countermelody, provide a hint of hopefulness to the otherwise resigned sentiment.
Shamir’s voice is an alluring, alien noise. At times it sounds almost cartoonish, yet manages to avoid self-parody thanks to the singer’s prickly sense of humor. At other times, especially during slow-burner “Darker,” it takes on a spiritual, uplifting quality. When Shamir does away with his preening sense of cool, he can sing with a full-bodied soulfulness while avoiding Christina Aguilera-style histrionics, allowing the song’s crushing lyrical sentiment to hit harder: “It doesn’t get darker unless you expected it to.” Dance music vocalists are stereotypically a faceless bunch, serving as personality-devoid delivery services for a song’s hook, but Shamir’s singular charisma oozes onto every track here. His winking in-jokes and one-liners might have gotten the Internet’s attention, but Ratchet wins you over when it reveals that this smart-aleck’s got a beating heart too.