By EMILY HERMAN
Arts & Entertainment Editor
Shamir, the Las Vegas artist whose voice and aesthetic defies traditional genre and gender norms, charmed a diverse crowd at the Ottobar on Saturday, Nov. 14 with a dynamic set.
Clad in ‘90s denim overalls with an embroidered dalmatian and neon orange nail polish, he drew a wide range of fans to his first show in Baltimore.
Juxtaposing a warm, soulful voice with catchy hooks, electronic effects and the stage presence of a bonafide diva, Shamir’s futuristic pop borrows the best of hip-hop, soul and electro.
Given Shamir’s age — he just turned 21 this month — the tracks on his debut album “Ratchet” include personal lyrics about falling in love and finding oneself, in addition to an ode to his hometown on “Vegas.”
The audience went crazy for his single “On The Regular,” in which he raps and sings about being unapologetically himself.
“Don’t try me; I’m not a free sample / Step to me, and you will be handled/ See, that’s my crown on the mantle / And if you try to touch it, yes, there will be scandal,” he sings.
He also revealed that the song “Darker,” a sweeping, gritty ballad, was about his great-grandmother who would have celebrated her 98th birthday the night of the Baltimore concert.
“If people react to something that’s so personal to me, it makes me feel like I did my job,” Shamir said in an exclusive interview with The News-Letter. “If it’s so personal to me, then other people can vibe with it. I’ve done my job if it’s relatable.”
He has certainly learned to do his job. Shamir noticeably appeared more confident and assured than when this writer last saw him live at
Washington, D.C.’s U Street Music Hall in June. He improvised with vocal acrobatics on the dramatic choruses of “Darker,” got down on his knees in “Hot Mess” and whipped his dreadlocks out of his bun to shake his hair around during “If It Wasn’t True.”
Shamir smiled and coyly chatted with the audience in between every song. It was evident that he was genuinely enjoying himself on stage. One of the most compelling aspects of the performance was the magnetic chemistry between him and his backup singer Tiffany, who often strutted to center stage bringing energy that stole the spotlight away from the lead.
Another strong point in the set was “Demon,” a teenage love song which he wrote while working in the dressing room at Ross. He really dug into the emotion of the song about a straight-laced kid falling for someone edgy — “The honor roll was all I known / ‘Til you took me over to the dark side.”
The eclectic audience danced enthusiastically and very poorly throughout the show, and Shamir also elicited audience participation in a few of his songs. At the end of “Youth,” Shamir instructed the crowd to fist pump to the refrain “Wish we left it in our youth.” In “Call It Off,” one of his two singles off Ratchet, he held the mic up to a few front-row fans to give them solos in the chorus (although you couldn’t hear them because the whole crowd was singing “it’s time to call it off!”).
On and off stage, Shamir made himself super accessible to fans. Before the show he chatted with a big group near the backstage entrance, stopped by the bar and even danced in front of the stage as his opener, HANA, was finishing her set. Afterwards he took pictures with excited audience members while taking a smoke break outside the venue.
Shamir said that he’s had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones on the road.
“The cool thing about going cross country and touring is you get to see a lot of your friends from your hometown,” Shamir said. “Usually we’re in a town that they’re in.”
Shamir, who is wrapping up his fall tour in Canada tonight and Mexico City this weekend, said that he doesn’t have firm plans for his next album.
“I’ve been writing here and there,” he said. “I don’t really write my albums in album form. I usually just write along the way and see what we have. I’m always writing on the road and in my free time.”
Complementing Shamir’s performance, HANA opened the night with her own brand of electro yet retro dance-pop, embellished with glockenspiel riffs. The Los Angeles-based singer, tinted pink by her large umbrellas attached to the lights, showed off an impressive vocal range.
HANA will join Grimes on her upcoming European tour, as well as on dates in Australia and South Korea.