It’s refreshing to struggle to find the right words.
So much of music writing is based on comparison, describing an artist based on music that the writer and the reader have heard before. I could tell you that there’s a great new band from Manchester who sounds like a cross between early The Cure and Franz Ferdinand, with a little bit of Wilco mixed in, and, if you know those bands, my work is done. All I need to do is search my memory for familiar notes and aesthetics, and my sentences can practically write themselves. Though there’s nothing wrong with describing by comparing, per se — an artist is always going to have influences, and with millions of songs in the world, it’s probably impossible to ever sound 100-percent original — it can be unfair to define artists solely by how they relate to others, taking away their individuality so they can more easily fit into a preordained structure.
That’s why I’m so excited about two relative newcomers to the semi-mainstream music world: Young Thug and Shamir. Both of these artists are unique whether you judge them by their records or by how they present themselves to the world, and they’re quite difficult to describe if you’re only using reference points from other musicians who have come before them.
Of these two, Atlanta’s Young Thug is likely more familiar to casual music fans. Despite owning the blandest MC name ever, Thugga’s made a name for himself through singles like “Stoner,” “Lifestyle” and “About the Money,” and by basically crushing every song he’s on with his indecipherable hooks, infectious energy and trippy, unpredictable flows. He’s polarized rap fans by sounding like he just wandered into the studio from another planet and started laying down tracks in whatever his native language is, consequently blowing up our notions of what hip hop can be. He’s been dismissed as simply “weird,” anointed as the successor to Lil Wayne’s vintage cough syrup rap and immediately embraced by anyone who loves it when artists never second-guess themselves and make music that’s both enjoyable and subversive.
Listen to Young Thug’s “Picacho” if you still have yet to hear him. It’s a monster of a single, ready-built to be blasted through huge speakers, but it’s also, like most of Thugga’s songs, an insane mix of singing, rapping and wailing. I’ll give you credit if you can understand more than a quarter of what Young Thug says on the track, but he raps like the kid who always talks in class and ignores every time he’s told to quiet down, like he’s at best only vaguely concerned with what any other rappers are doing right now. The hook (“My diamonds they say Pikachu!”) doesn’t necessarily hold up to close reading, but it’s one of those things that’s just awesome to shout as loud as you can. Thugga took things down a notch for his most recent release, Barter 6, but the skill and consistency on every track throughout the album/mixtape only reinforced his versatility and confirmed he’s not just an amped-up novelty.
Shamir, while also being “weird,” hails from Vegas and embodies Sin City’s long lineage of pure versatile entertainment. On Twitter, he describes himself as “musician, comedian, singer, rapper, twerker, chef, writer, filmmaker, tumblr, skinny fat ass.”
His music is just as unpredictable as that autobiography implies. The first song I heard from Shamir was “I Know It’s a Good Thing” from his early EP Northtown. Yes, Shamir’s falsetto is stellar, and he pulls off the minimal-yet-potent build of the track perfectly. But as far as dance music or disco-revival goes, it’s not particularly surprising or extreme.
So after that, I had to do a double take when I heard Shamir’s single “On the Regular” to make sure this was actually the same artist. The song magnifies and emphasizes the androgyny of his voice, with Shamir’s sing-song rap both drawing attention to and nonchalantly acknowledging how different he is. “On the Regular”‘s flamboyance tells us that, as he’s dancing and strutting through all of us, no one could even try to get close to what Shamir’s doing every single day. The rest of Ratchet is much of the same unique alt-disco vibe, and it’s refreshing to see Shamir bring house music back to its non-straight, non-white roots.
What’s so great about both of these artists isn’t just their innovative music, but how they both so freely defy norms of gender and sexuality. In the still-too-homophobic world of hip hop, Young Thug has caused much hand-wringing and discomfort because, even though he identifies as straight, Thugga has no problem with wearing dresses or calling his male friends “bae” and “hubby.” Meanwhile, Shamir has claimed an unclassifiable style all his own, free of any real traditional gender signifiers. While in “On the Regular” he says, “Just so you know, yes, yes, I’m a guy” (and he appears to prefer male pronouns), he’s spoken in interviews about not feeling especially attached to any gender label.
Music is the perfect artistic venue to, as the cliché goes, “be yourself,” because it allows you to reach a large number of people without risking too much or needing the approval of others. From David Bowie to Sun Ra to Prince and Morrissey, there’s a long history of musicians using the freedom of the stage to proudly express individuality, play with personas and ambiguous sexuality and embrace “weirdness.” And yes, all of those iconic artists are men, but today, with record companies and traditional power structures becoming more hindrances than assets for up-and-coming artists, it’s easier for all artists to perform as whomever they desire. Take Grimes, Laura Jane Grace, Lana Del Rey or even the newly gender-inclusive Miley Cyrus — all are women who have found freedom to break traditional labels and norms in music either through onstage personas or through the increased ability to express their true selves.
If someone was making a very personal movie or a TV show that really expressed a lot about who he or she stood for, that project would need to be approved by a rich, high-up employee at a studio or channel. But there are no hegemonic gatekeepers for Soundcloud or Bandcamp. If someone wants to share feelings unique to them with tons of people, music right now is the most efficient way to do that. And as a new generation grows up seeing all of these new patriarchy-smashing pop stars when they go to shows or browse Spotify, we’re going to have a brand-new musical vocabulary.