For someone who was born many years after his idols reached their peaks, he tends to adopt their craft quite well.
Shamir – Northtown EP
Is it 2014 or 1984? Although this is a question that’s been asked lately in regards to the whole NSA scandal, it’s also one that applies to the state of recent music. The last few years have given rise to a sudden surge of artists that incorporate the textures, moods, tones, and lyrical themes of three decades ago in their songs. Whether it’s Blood Orange occupying the bubblegum synthpop of the time, Destroyer transforming smooth jazz from corny cliche into enchanting folklore, or Haim taking on Fleetwood Mac’s interpretation of the era, modern listeners have been exposed to an intense amount of music that borrows heavily from the 80s.
Enter a new face to this crowd: Shamir Bailey, who records as Shamir, and draws inspiration from the wild dance pop of Michael Jackson as well as the funky R&B of Prince. For someone who was born many years after his idols reached their peaks — Shamir is only 19 years old — he tends to adopt their craft quite well. His debut EP Northtown offers a brief glimpse into just how successful he can be at continuing his idols’ legacy, while also showing that he strikes more thoroughly when letting his own shades shine through.
The most immediately entrancing thing about Shamir’s musicianship is his androgynous, soulful voice. Throughout Northtown, Shamir showcases his incredibly dynamic and adaptable voice in enticing ways. “I Know It’s a Good Thing” explores the highest parts of his register as he drifts through booming pianos, a consistent click track, and backing oohs and aahs. “I’ll Never Be Able to Love” captures the low and high ranges of his voice pretty well: he delivers his verses in a relatively low pitch, but puts his laceratingly high-pitched vibrato front-and-center during its chorus. It’s also the most downbeat of the original pieces here, its minimal palette of drums and vocal harmonies later expanding into a stuttered percussive smack for merely a moment.
This later segment of “I’ll Never Be Able to Love” is its most exciting, and it highlights an interesting trend in Shamir’s songs. Despite how inherently gorgeous his voice is, his songs are more thrilling when he surrounds it in maximalist splendor, a technique not as heavily explored by his predecessors. On “Sometimes a Man”, for example, a deep house beat flows sensually under Shamir’s voice, and the abundance and ferocity of the accompanying synths and percussion nicely round it out. The song is one of two absolute dancefloor jams included here, and it’s got a surprisingly dark underbelly, especially when compared to the other banger here, “If It Wasn’t True.”
“If It Wasn’t True” is the moment when Shamir truly glows. Actually, this is an understatement; here, Shamir shines solid gold, fully embracing the maximalism unshared with his idols. He’s brewed up what might be the most viscerally engaging funk-disco tune in ages, and he absolutely revels in it. Pulsating, fat synths and a steady click track introduce this first song on the EP, leading to our first encounter with Shamir’s already-trademark smoothly androgynous vocals. Shamir muses about his bitter breakup with a former lover, his voice soaring over a consistently in-your-face instrumental bed, which unexpectedly explodes into a barrage of searing, adrenaline-rushing synth blasts after about two minutes. It sounds like what the 1980s could have been if that time’s artists had access to current musical technology and trends: catchy, sensual, mobile, funky, and just one of the goddamn best songs of the year so far.
Placing “If It Wasn’t True” at the EP’s beginning provides an excellent introduction to Shamir’s retro-nostalgic world, but it casts a shadow over the remaining songs. Don’t be mistaken — these are all great tunes, although the final track, a lo-fi folk Lindi Ortega cover (“Lived and Died Alone”), feels completely out of place here. “Sometimes a Man” comes incredibly close to matching the magic of “If It Wasn’t True” since it’s just as bold and maximalist; “I’ll Never Be Able to Love” and “I Know It’s a Good Thing”, on the other hand, just don’t compare despite being pretty enjoyable. But, as Shamir reminds us on the latter track, talk is cheap; instead of discussing Northtown‘s flaws, let’s just be happy that Shamir’s delivered a true gem or two here, and that many more are to come.