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Las Vegas native Shamir confronts gender norms on beatific, bracing new album

Updated February 10, 2022 - 5:01 am

As his voice soars, the blood rains.

“I’m not cisgender / I’m not binary, trans,” Shamir sings in a falsetto that sounds catapulted from his lungs, shooting up, up, up with little regard to where it’s headed.

“I don’t wanna be a girl,” he exhorts, his face dripping with gore pouring down from above, the viscous, dark-red fluid meant to represent the stuff pumping through your veins. “I don’t wanna be a man.”

Eyes widening, the 27-year-old Las Vegas native stares into the camera, costumed in hooves and horns, a nod to pagan deity Baphomet, a goat-like figure more closely aligned musically with Satan-dapping death metal than the experimental, indie noise pop soundtracking the clip in question. “You can take it or leave it,” he commands through a crimson gaze, a chain around his neck attaching him to producer Hollow Comet, playing guitar by his side. “Or you can just stay back.”

The video is for “Cisgender,” the lead single from Shamir’s alternately beatific and bracing new album, “Heterosexuality,” his eighth overall, due out today (Feb. 11).

The song’s lyrics are straightforward, its video heavy on symbolism: The chain represents gender and our attachment to it — willingly or not; the blood signifies the violence that transgender people can be subjected to because of their sexual identity; the Baphomet allusions are spawned by what Shamir describes as a subhuman feeling that he sometimes endures.

“I think a lot of times when I’m out and about in the world and I look and present a certain way, I kind of feel I’m looked at — even with the best of intentions — like the animal in the zoo, you know?” explains Shamir, whose full name is Shamir Bailey.

The song, the video, this album is his way of gawking back nearly a decade into an alternately celebrated and turbulent career.

Upon dropping his debut E.P., “Northtown,” in 2014, named after the part of the city he grew up, Bailey met with quick acclaim for his gorgeous, distinct countertenor singing voice and all-over-the-place pop sensibilities, earning a record deal with XL Recordings that same year.

The label advertised his 2015 debut “Ratchet” with a billboard in Times Square as Bailey racked up the critical accolades. Spin magazine named “Ratchet” the top debut of 2015 and the ninth best release of the year overall. “It’s an incredible album strewn with highlights obvious and sneaky,” reviewer Dan Weiss enthused. Complex magazine called it a “thrilling, anthemic introduction;” Rolling Stone included it among the top 20 pop albums of 2015.

But then came splits with record companies and management; a brief stint in a psychiatric hospital where Bailey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder; a 2015 move to Philadelphia, a city that keeps him on his toes, he says, as opposed to the tranquility he feels in his hometown, where his family still lives.

“I think if I stayed in Vegas and really settled into that calming nature,” he says, “I don’t think I would have gotten much done.”

Despite the personal and professional ups-and-downs, Shamir’s remained prolific through it all, self-releasing albums, delving into country, indie rock and folk, his previous record, 2020’s “Shamir,” again earning critical acclaim, coming in at No. 29 in the Rolling Stone top 50 albums of the year.

“Heterosexuality,” though, just might be his most sonically and lyrically potent effort yet, an album of harsh sounds, in places, and truths harsher still.

With “Heterosexuality,” Bailey’s also looking to stake out, on his own terms, what it means to be a queer artist.

Yes, he is one.

No, it’s not the primary thing that defines him.

“My queerness informs my art in certain ways, but no more than any other parts of my identity,” he explains during a phone interview in January. “A lot of rappers rap about their experiences with violence or poverty, but you don’t typically see people (focusing) on those traumatic things when they’re interviewing rappers, right? ‘Can you talk to me about poverty?’ Can you talk to me about violence?’

“Yes, it informs my art,” he adds, “but it’s not all that my art is. I think this record is me reclaiming that.”

‘Northtown’ origins

He’s not just an open book — he’s an open book with large-print type that can be read from across the room.

You can ask Shamir Bailey just about anything and he’ll answer, no matter how personal.

“If anything, I like invasive questions,” he acknowledges.

What he takes issue with, though, is how those questions have been centered so much on one topic: his sexuality, which he resists defining in binary terms.

“I think there’s a lot of trauma rooted in my queerness, and not so much in me accepting it,” he says. “I’ve been out my entire career, and never felt like I needed to hide it.

“The trauma is more rooted in the fact that my queerness has been a focal point to be exploited,” he continues. “Especially in the beginning in the career, I felt like I was taking about my identity more than my art.”

What an auspicious beginning it was, though: Since picking up the guitar at age 9, Bailey began writing songs immediately, and never stopped.

“I think with a lot of the solitude that I felt growing up in North Las Vegas, creating was the only thing that made me feel anything,” he explains. “I’m really good at blocking out the noise — ’cause trauma response! When I’d feel the most lonely, I’d go in my room and write songs or paint or do whatever, create my own world.”

He was initially drawn to country music. He loved Taylor Swift; he’s covered Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega, who toured as a backup singer for fellow Las Vegan Brandon Flowers in support of his first solo record.

But after a brief flirtation with punk, it was the Day-Glo disco lite of his debut single “If It Wasn’t True,” an R&B-informed breakup song, that brought him national attention.

“Ratchet” then established him as a promising dance pop up-and-comer, though he split with his label over creative differences shortly thereafter and self-released his 2017 sophomore album “Hope” as he began excavating more of his indie rock roots.

Bailey’d later part ways with his management team, consider quitting music for a time and weather a psychotic episode that left him hospitalized, all while dropping six albums from 2017-2020.

But a few weeks after the release of his most recent album, “Shamir,” Bailey developed the concept at the core of “Heterosexuality” following a 3 a.m. Twitter rant, acknowledging the internalized homophobia he felt but had never fully articulated in his music. “I wasn’t even thinking about making new material,” he says.

Two days later, producer Hollow Comet (Isaac Eiger) contacted him out of the blue about working together.

“ ‘Whoa, this is serendipitous,’ ” Bailey recalls thinking. “I heard his production and was so inspired by it.”

Two months later, they had an album written.

‘This is just who I am’

The song comes on like a cinder block hurled through a plate glass window, Shamir Bailey sing-rapping over a riot of noise and a beat suggestive of a bullwhip being cracked, the sound as unrelenting as the sentiment being expressed.

“In the new paradigm you ain’t safe / You can keep your eyes shut, but you can’t look away….” Bailey asserts on “Abomination,” the third track on “Heterosexuality.” “And I ain’t Tracey Chapman, but revolution’s on its way.”

The song’s many things thematically — a comment on the struggles of earning a livable wage; a wary eye cast toward the powers-that-be; a promise that any violence set upon Bailey will be returned in kind — though singular in its vehemence. It’s maybe the fiercest song he’s ever penned.

But then comes the ’80s-R&B-indebted breeze of “Stability”; the laidback pop longing of “Caught Up,” in which Bailey’s voice is the thread stitching a torn heart back together; the acoustic guitar strum of “Father,” a song about gaining independence from one’s parents at long last.

While “Heterosexuality” confronts issues of gender identity right up front with singles “Gay Agenda” and “Cisgender,” that’s not all that the album’s about — and that’s why it’s winkingly titled “Heterosexuality” to begin with.

But then he moves on. It’s a cue for listeners to do the same. Emotionally, sonically, “Heterosexuality” is a thoroughly uninhibited record.

Fittingly, it came together in loose, off-the-cuff fashion, with Bailey sending song ideas to Eiger, who then fleshed them out musically.

“He gave me tons of freedom, which I really appreciated, and it felt exciting to send ideas back and forth,” says Eiger who also fronts Portland, Oregon, indie rockers Strange Ranger. “Shamir is cool, because he has really clear ideas, but is also super open to collaboration. Made for a really good time.”

Music is but one of Bailey’s creative outlets these days. He’s also an avid painter, who published a book of essays about some of his works last year, and runs his own indie label, Accidental Popstar Records.

When he talks about the creative process, he does so in decidedly non-grandiose terms (he likens it to a bodily function at one point).

“I think people think that I must love art, I must love music, it’s like my passion — it’s not a passion any more,” he says. “This is just who I am.”

“Heterosexuality” is a reflection of as much, an album of intense catharsis, but one that also carries with it a sense of hard-earned resolution — the pain serves a purpose.

“Listen to your heart, though it’s a sketchy source / It just likes the sensation of being periodically sore,” Bailey notes amid the jazzy swing of album closer “Nuclear.”

“Things that give us life makes us question if we can take it anymore/ But we put up anyway,” he sings, holding on to the final note, letting go of most everything else.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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