Existential angst gets anthems; generational anxieties get an entirely new sound. In American music, there’s a long, rich history of both: from the scratchy Paramount 78s reinventing American recorded music to capture the bluesy gestalt and underlying racial tensions of the late 1910s, to the wild, druggy peace-rock of the Vietnam War era, which provided the soundtrack to a massive youth uprising. The late 1980s and early ’90s got Kurt Cobain for its angst, but it had to return to rap to describe its political discontents. The era would eventually become a golden age for political hip-hop, when acts like Public Enemy, KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, and N.W.A. were on the rise. As the Chuck D quote goes, rap is black America’s CNN, and what its creators saw on the streets moved them enough to want to report on it in their work.
As the platforms for music proliferated and fractured in the 2000s, with more ways to get noticed yet less attention to go around, it’s been harder to keep up with exactly how today’s culture is working out its issues. But in an increasingly unequal world, more and more musicians appear to be responding to the pressures that economic injustice creates. From St. Vincent to Vince Staples, we see a common generational anxiety: We are all coming undone in a society that makes it hard to make ends meet. After all, an era’s musicians are representatives of its id, capturing the uncertainties roiling just beneath the surface.
Shamir Bailey is a striking example: He sprang, fully formed, from the shimmering desert-heat mirage of Las Vegas, with that beautiful, improbable countertenor, singing his vulnerability. As the story goes, Bailey graduated high school, then went mononymous and sent a demo to Godmode records in Brooklyn. Nick Sylvester, the label’s head, signed him immediately. Their first collaboration resulted in 2014’s Northtown EP, named for the neighborhood where Shamir grew up, and critics were cautiously optimistic—and after Ratchet, his first full-length album, came out on XL Records the following year, they were convinced. Ratchet was a dancey, R&B-inflected romp through glitter-spattered soul-baring. “I’m holding on desperately / But you know they always will / Go in for the kill,” Shamir sang on “In for the Kill.” And yet two years and two albums later, critics seem to have cooled on the young star in the making with the impossible voice. So what gives?
The short answer is that Shamir left Godmode and Sylvester’s production, and then was dropped from XL’s roster, and somewhere in the process changed his sound entirely: Hope, his second full-length, which was released directly to SoundCloud last year, was a lo-fi bedroom-rock experiment that, in Pitchfork’s words, represented “the fear of the sophomore album realized as music.” The longer answer might be that Shamir decided to plot another course entirely, finding a sound that was wholly his own: After he was dropped by XL, he struggled with mental-health issues and considered quitting music entirely. Hope came about as an effort to cope.
Which is why his latest effort, Revelations, feels so revelatory. It delivers on Hope’s promise: The album is lo-fi, yes, but more sylph-like and tender than his previous work. It is also more assured. There’s a clumsiness to the production that’s endearing, which makes it feel like being inside Shamir’s head: Everything is stripped down and pared back, and his voice does the heavy lifting, carrying the catchy melodies that are his trademark.