Midway through lunch at a divey Williamsburg Mexican joint, Shamir Bailey turned into a puppet. Well, on the internet, anyway — at some moment between the chips and guac and the lengua chimichangas, the video for his bouncy new “Call It Off” premiered online, kicking up a flurry of faves, reblogs, and a few WTFs. The clip features the charismatic 20-year-old singer undergoing a transformation from man to puppet; as he leans over the table to show me a few pictures, he brags, “I know I look good in felt.”
Bailey has just arrived in town from Austin’s SXSW, where he experienced the sort of buzz-generating week that the music festival is supposed to deliver for artists but only rarely does. The taste-making website Stereogum gushed, “I haven’t been this enthralled with a live performance [in] a while.” Spin dubbed him “Most Likely to Succeed” and noted that, onstage and off, “he handed out hugs like candy.” At the end of a performance at the fest’s Fader Fort, Bailey began individually greeting audience members as though they were guests at his own house party.
All of which is true to the spirit of his forthcoming debut, Ratchet, which is as dazzling and endearing as a handmade disco ball. The album, out May 19 on XL, the British label that helped make stars of Adele and Vampire Weekend, combines the scrappy thump of early house with the knowing sass of LCD Soundsystem. Animated by Bailey’s infectious personality, Ratchet revels in carefree youth and the transcendence of a great night out. “Life’s no answer, it’s just one big guess,” Bailey declares on one of the danciest tunes. “So why not go out and make a scene?”
Like his voice — a lilting falsetto reminiscent of gender-bending disco singer Sylvester and a tweenage Michael Jackson — Bailey’s look can be unapologetically androgynous. (When we met, he showed me his Lana Del Rey–inspired manicure.) That classificational blurriness sets him apart but also makes him feel of the moment. Last year, music critic Jason King grouped Bailey with Azealia Banks and Mykki Blanco (and I’d add Frank Ocean) as a part of the “post-closet black overground,” artists who flaunt their queerness but find it passé to subscribe to a label as confining as “gay.” Fittingly, Bailey says he doesn’t relate to the terms male or female — he’s “just Shamir.”
Ratchet was recorded in a basement studio on a quiet block in Williamsburg, not far from this particular Mexican restaurant, Grand Morelos. He orders his usual (“I know if a Mexican restaurant is authentic if they have lengua”) and asks the waitress for the “really, really spicy” salsa they keep in the back. She obliges; Bailey dips a chip and exhales rapturously. “You can literally,” he says, “taste the death in it.”
On his Android, Bailey flicks through stills from the “Call It Off” video. Puppet Shamir has all the stylish singer’s signature attributes: that septum ring, that charming gap between his front teeth. The video premiered as a part of the YouTube Music Awards webcast — alongside offerings by Ed Sheeran and Charli XCX — and, accordingly, his phone buzzes every few seconds during our lunch. “Everything is popping off!” he says.
Bailey was born and raised in Las Vegas, a half-hour north of the Strip. In conversation (and in his videos), he gives off both a neon exuberance and an ennui that probably have something to do with growing up in a town where adults go to behave badly. But it wasn’t just his age that made him feel out of step with his surroundings; for as long as he can remember, Bailey, the son of a real-estate-agent mom and UPS-driver dad, has struggled to conform to gender stereotypes. He remembers spending equal time with toy cars and an Easy-Bake Oven. “I never thought it was weird until people started telling me,” he says. “Then I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t braid hair and wrestle? Why?!’ ”
Music became an outlet for what Bailey calls his “weirdness.” He got a guitar when he was 9. As a teen, he played along to songs from Nickelodeon’s The Naked Brothers Band. Eventually he formed a jangly indie-pop outfit called Anorexia. After the band dissolved, he began recording solo tracks and emailed a demo to the Brooklyn indie Godmode Music.
“What jumped out to me was that his music was super-raw,” recalls Godmode founder Nick Sylvester, who was particularly taken with the torchy “I’ll Never Be Able to Love.” “When you hear his voice saying those words, you feel the weight of it. I was like, Wow, there’s real depth here.” Sylvester was so impressed that he flew Bailey to New York to record an EP, Northtown. This past fall, after securing a residency at the Bushwick DIY space Silent Barn, Bailey returned to Brooklyn to work on Ratchet.
It was during that time that Bailey’s star really began to rise, thanks to his irresistible single “On the Regular.” Atop a sparse, up-tempo track, Bailey raps: “Ever since I was 8, I was attached to the mike / Wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike.” “I didn’t think I’d put that out as a single,” he says. “It was supposed to be fun — like, ‘Oh, Shamir rapping, that’s cute.’ But the response was crazy.” (After attending Bailey’s first New York headlining show, Tavi Gevinson tweeted, “do u even kno how lucky we r to live in a world in which Shamir also lives.”)
“On the Regular,” which you have now probably heard in an Android ad, celebrates and subverts rap’s history of tough-guy braggadocio — there’s something arresting about a voice as feminine as Bailey’s spitting taunts like “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample.” But beneath the humor, the song forces you to rethink the idea that bravado must be legibly masculine to be powerful.
A few days after our lunch, I catch up with Bailey in his room at the McCarren Hotel — “Call It Off” has surpassed a million views. It’s unsurprising — he does look good in felt — but it means Bailey is learning that attention can have a dark side. Some of the YouTube comments on the video were so nasty that Sylvester called to make sure Bailey was okay. “My music is weird, and I’m weird,” Bailey reassured him. “Not everyone’s going to get it.”
The most common response to the video was akin to “I can’t tell if this is a guy or a girl.” But Bailey shrugs that off. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before,” he says. The night the video premiered, he tweeted to the confused: “[T]o those who keep asking, I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.”
“I always say he’s the best possible version of a 20-year-old,” Sylvester says with a laugh. And it’s true: Bailey feels like a millennial ideal — a model of resilience for a generation wracked by cyberbullying, blurring boundaries with a progressive abandon. But even more than retrograde attitudes, the biggest challenge Bailey may face is figuring out how to maintain that private-house-party vibe as his career explodes. Not that this — or anything — seems to worry him.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime already,” he says, reclining on his unmade bed. “So now I’m just chilling.”
Video: See Bailey sing on the set of his New York photo shoot.
*This article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.