TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker says the debut album by Shamir is one of the year's most striking albums, full of energy and optimism. Shamir is Shamir Bailey, a singer and songwriter in his early 20s from Las Vegas. Here's Ken's review of Shamir's album "Ratchet."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEMON")
SHAMIR BAILEY: (Singing) The honor roll was all I'd known 'til you took me over to the dark side. The thrill was good. Together we stood like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. We'll stay and we'll run, forget about things we done. We were fit for survival, no books but the Bible, held out with a gun.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Shamir has a voice that soars, floating in and around the electric keyboards and percussion. It's a voice that sounds knowing and sly, ripe for pleasure and a good time. Working most frequently with disco-dance house music beats, his songs invariably open out into pure pop pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE A SCENE")
BAILEY: (Singing) Stranger kisses and pixie dust, crazy nights that's filled with lust. I don't know you and really don't care 'cause I'm never really aware. And girls like guys who's ripped and buff. And guys like girls who have big butts. And girls are sad all of the time 'cause good guys are so hard to find. So why not go out and make a scene?
TUCKER: Before this album, "Ratchet," Shamir put out an EP called "Northtown," named after the area where Shamir grew up in North Las Vegas, a more rural area. He lived closer to a pig farm than to a casino. When I first heard Shamir, his voice reminded me of Sylvester, creator of the great 1978 disco anthem "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." Like Sylvester, Shamir frequently projects an unbridled optimism, an assertion of confidence that has nothing to do with arrogance but rather a firm insistence upon living life on his own terms.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL IT OFF")
BAILEY: (Singing) I've been trying to find a reason to keep us together, trying to make up my bed of lies and call the night my shelter. It's time to call it off. And this time, it's not my fault. What time is it? It's time to walk out the door. It's time to get gone. It's time to walk out the door.
TUCKER: The music here benefits from its stripped-down quality. Working with producer Nick Sylvester, Shamir made the most of what was undoubtedly a low budget, using synthesized keyboards and percussion. I think Shamir is going to appeal to a lot of people once they dig deeper into his music after the shock of pleasure there is to get from his singing. In his lyrics, Shamir rejects cynicism, irony, smug knowingness, negativity. As he sings on the swirling ballad "Darker," it doesn't get darker unless you expect it to.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKER")
BAILEY: (Singing) We're just shells that are dwelled. But our souls float to new dimensional selves. But the love we leave is our legacy. So we'll keep it alive in our memory because it doesn't get darker unless you expect it to. It's just getting harder to contain the truth. It doesn't get darker unless you...
TUCKER: You can't contain the truth, Shamir sings over and over at the conclusion of that song, "Darker." Part of Shamir's truth is that he likes all kinds of music. I mean, how could I not like a guy who also covers country tunes such as Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me" and Kacey Musgraves "Merry Go 'Round"? It's this range of taste that further suggests Shamir's potential to become a pop star to all people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUTH")
BAILEY: (Singing) Show me your glowing armor, my shining knight. Blind me with valor and honor. Shade me from the wicked night.
TUCKER: His striking force and androgynous demeanor come across as all-inclusive. Shamir's presentation, from his songs to his look, are all about inviting you in, leaving no one out. It's as pure a form of pop stardom ambition as we've had recently. Just want to be great, he sings toward the end of his debut album, adding, is that such a crime? No, Shamir, it is not.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Ratchet" by Shamir. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with Pete Docter, the director of the new Disney Pixar film "Inside Out," or our interview with Andrew Solomon about depression, check out our podcast, which you can find at itunes.com/freshair or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.