For most musicians, a major part of their creative life is devoted to a sisyphean search for any morsel of notoriety within an ever-shrinking bandwidth of relevance. But this isn’t the case for Shamir Bailey—his is a controlled descent toward creative contentment. Few artists would dream of getting a rave review of their debut EP in Pitchfork, fewer of signing with XL Recordings before their twentieth birthday. Riding a high of hit singles, year-end lists, and apt Prince comparisons, Shamir was pegged as the Next Big Popstar. Since then his career has taken several unexpected turns, much of it due to frustrations with expectations, major record labels, PR campaigns, and, most notably, small-mindedness.
The big pop machine is an amazing heal, wonderfully easy to blame, and, since the dawn of pop music, the ire of creative freedom. But it’s important to remember the “indie” side of things isn’t much better, especially for queer artists of color. For much of its existence, indie has withheld its professed values from a large swath of the music landscape, which is why even the common trajectory of major-label-deal-to-indie wasn’t Shamir’s path. Instead, he built it from the ground up, self-releasing and founding his own label, Accidental Popstar, a kind of self-curated graduate course in the music industry.
Which brings us to Shamir, his new self-released record. This was the album he had to work so hard to make, one with the sonic variety of an artist unbeholden to expectations. While it’s not a perfect record, there are perfect moments, and within those moments is a freedom you can’t help but embrace. Shamir is a record of hits, misses, left-field bangers, and a couple Frankensteins that don’t quite make it off the table—but more than anything it’s Shamir’s and Shamir’s only, an impressive feat in and out itself.
The most undeniable of bangers is album opener “On My Own,” a song of both chunky grunge and dancefloor sensibilities topped with the controlled break of Bailey’s citrus falsetto. It’s here that Bailey introduces some of the record’s driving themes: ruthless intentionality, happiness to spite suffering, and keeping things close to the chest. “I don’t mind to live all on my own / And I never did / And don’t care to feel like I belong / But you always did,” goes the blistering chorus of “On My Own,” a confident assertion of will in the face of a more acquiescing partner. It’s a characteristically bold start to a record that finds Bailey more comfortable than ever recognizing what works in his life and what doesn’t.
Something that gets repeated in Shamir is the idea of suffering, whether for art, love, or any of the other pleasures. “But I refuse to fucking suffer just to feel whole,” Shamir sings later on “On My Own,” mirroring the similar line-in-the-sand chorus from the swaggering “Running”: “Done giving up my light just to stay in the dark.” When things do lean toward nihilism, the terms are strict and asserted. “’Cause you’re pretty when you’re mad, and I’m pretty when I’m sad / So let’s fuck around inside each other’s heads,” Bailey sings in the album’s most operatic delivery on the furiously confident “Pretty When I’m Sad.”
Meanwhile, songs like “Paranoia” and “I Wonder” introduce some scintillating ideas—the curdled, Cobain-meets-Jimmy-Page guitars of the former and the sweeping grandeur of the latter—but fail to come fully materialized before their abrupt conclusions. Both attempt to wrangle two very different musical ideas with varying success, serving as a testament to Shamir’s experimentation. A world in which Shamir continued to work with XL Recordings would likely be one without a song like “Other Side,” a slide-guitar rearing, belt-buckle-grabbing, catchy-as-hell hit. Shamir may have had an almost meteoric rise in the music industry, but he had to fight for every opportunity that led to a chance to release this song on this record.