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When a musical icon passes away, it's as if a major institution crumbles. Prince held a vast wealth of cultural currency, and his death is akin to the Federal Reserve collapsing — you feel the absence of what you previously took for granted through the ripple effects of its departure. Prince mattered, and even up to the last second of his career, he never once leaned on his already existing legacy to retain his cultural clout. He was one of the last remaining musical legends, alongside David Bowie, who never ceased to experiment. Prince’s songwriting refused to age alongside a traditional narrative arc; he rewrote the rules so effortlessly that it seemed simply as if no one had before him thought to try. That's what he excelled at above all else — showing others that boundaries existed so far as you believed in them. When an artist such as Prince dies, he lives on through the risks that would not otherwise have been taken without his influence.

You can see the impact Prince left on music in an artist like Shamir. Prince was a prominent figure in blurring the lines of sexuality; he never really cared much for heteronormative standards, so he just did away with them — and in doing so paved the way for androgyny to not only become culturally accepted, but to be artistically exciting. Shamir — who is genderqueer, meaning he doesn’t identify as either male or female — owes a lot to Prince for paving the road to where he stands, and he's using this gifted platform as a space for further exploration into uncharted musical territory.

Where Prince saw R&B, funk, and rock and roll as tools to advance his omnidimensional pop music, Shamir employs disco, soul, and even lo-fi indie rock (a la his beloved Alex G) in crafting his electro-pop that is heavy on the glitz, but also resonant in its vulnerable core. What’s most refreshing about Shamir is how he weaves all of his adopted genres into a singular weapon, and then wields it as a signature style. While sonically cohesive, his 2015 debut album Ratchet doesn’t think of itself as solely a dance album, an R&B album, or any other such designation — Shamir is a fluid performer who occupies the shape of his songs rather than bend them into his comfort zone (if he even has one). He’ll deliver charming boasts via a quirky flow if the occasion calls for it (“On the Regular”), or instead opt for a subtle whimper if he thinks it will better serve the track (“Darker”).

His various approaches are all tied together by his wispy countertenor, as well as an illustrative method of songwriting. Listening to Shamir immediately feels familiar; he’s sassy and silly and eccentrically brilliant. Around him bubble gargling synths and billowing horns, yet he can’t help but be the most engaging instrument in the mix. While almost every track on Ratchet aims to involuntarily trigger your dance muscles, Shamir cuts through the record with a sullen, introspective edge. The listening experience is not unlike attending a rave in sunglasses, in that you stand at the center of a sensory eruption while watching from behind your own self-constructed separation.

Shamir isn’t a direct descendant of Prince, but he’s of the same lineage. Prince defined whatever time period he happened to inhabit; meanwhile Shamir is distinctively of his era. Born in the 1990s, Shamir is not only a millennial by definition, but visibly so in spirit. He’s cynical, but self-aware — knowing he probably won’t fully buy into his desired pessimism no matter how hard he tries. He’s disparaging of the “basics” and “thots,” but also hangs out with them because he sees in their personalities aspects he wishes could be his own. “The honor roll was all I’d known, until you took me over to the dark side,” coos Shamir, yet he’s singing with the understanding that he had always regardless been curious about the “mistakes” he could make if he so let himself.

“If I’m a demon then you’re the beast who made me” goes the hook of mid-album highlight “Demons,” and it’s altogether possible that Shamir is directing this accusation at himself. Any preconceived notions he used to have of who he was were self-imposed barriers, and he’s since broken down those confines and fully embraced the person he’s always wanted to be. That takes real strength, and we are fortunate that Prince helped artists like Shamir find it. Amidst all the other Prince tributes taking place these next few weeks, take some time to see Shamir at Swedish American Hall this Saturday to remind yourself that Prince’s legacy doesn’t simply exist in the past, but extends far over the future.

Shamir, NYLO
Swedish American Hall
April 30th, 2016
8:30 PM (21+), $25

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