We’re in a beautiful moment in pop music. Queer Black artists are prominent, from Janelle Monae, Moses Sumney, Lil Nas X and more, reaching levels of acclaim and success in every area from the avant-garde to the pop—as it should be. Heterosexuality, Shamir‘s third record and one that grapples as vibrantly and directly with his queer identity as his previous two LPs have, joins good company. Each of these is united, on some level, by the throbbing genius undercurrent of Prince, himself an inheritor to the riveting queer art of Little Richard. The line from “Cisgender,” the second track on this LP, that goes: “I am not a woman and I am not a man” feels like a spiritual modern successor to the opening line from Purple Rain‘s “I Would Die 4 U,” here updated to firmly name the genderqueer and trans identity that this can create. Elsewhere, the hybridization of throbbing industrial avant-gardeisms with profoundly catchy hooks and eminently danceable grooves feels like a clear child to the great Janet Jackson, whose Rhythm Nation 1814 and Control themselves were inheritors to the equally great Grace Jones before her.
This sense of lineage is pressingly apparent across these songs, not hidden but embraced. Shamir doesn’t hide the way some artists do behind the false veil of innovation, often a way of obscuring the family tree of concepts and developments to hoard them for oneself. Heterosexuality feels to its bones like a record that is aware of its community, of its family, and is as proud of the highly synthetic HI-NRG beats and stratosphere scraping vocals of early Whitney Houston as it is the modern largely black-driven hybridization of arthouse rock and electronic music with R&B and pop. Assuming someone could hear this record without understanding a word, it would still move them to tears; at their basics, the song structures here, the melodies, the arrangements, are as burbling and vivacious as recent surprise critical darlings like Carly Rae Jepsen and those most recent shockingly good Hayley Williams solo records.
But beautiful and richly composed music alone isn’t what makes this record great. Because, dear reader, we can hear the words, do know the meaning of these songs. Like anyone in modernity, I sit and think about my gender, my sexuality, what I have inherited as a default and what I have actualized and affirmed as an active-tense sense of self. These questions take curious shapes, curl around themselves: Who has never felt love or desire for someone of their own gender, on some level? Who has not looked at the limits of gender or felt shame and rage at the way their gender traps what they try to express, such that it feels your words and actions are mutilated by the way the world sees your body? These questions require a kind of boldness that, to my shame, I will admit I often lack. I carry a timidity in me, one that makes me deferential sometimes in ways that are self-effacing rather than honest. In such matters, that means the fact that by default I would be a cishet white guy makes me sometimes unwilling to too-deeply interrogate these questions about myself; the myriad colors and shifting geometries within the kaleidoscope of self go witnessed but unnamed, dissipating like a mandala in the sand bowl, all for fear of taking up space or obscuring conversations that aren’t mine.
So when a record makes me confront these things, it makes me take notice. Shamir isn’t alone in bringing these questions up to my face. Mitski, for instance, or Carly Rae before her, have made me sit and contemplate why certain turns of phrase or certain specific images stroke my heart so tenderly. Kate Bush or Stevie Nicks might have been the first, but the greatest is that first time I heard “I Would Die 4 U,” heard that magic line (“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something you’ll never understand“) and felt a giggling near-spiritual euphoria. Heterosexuality doesn’t read like a school lesson or spreadsheet of identity markers; it sings out like a homily, invoking in the space these arrangements leave and the curling, tantalizing vocals a dialogue with your heart. It becomes impossible not to revisit certain unsettled questions, to turn them over and witness things in your heart you’d sometimes rather forget. Heterosexuality presents a series of names, certainly, but more importantly it offers a compassionate and listening heart.
Which roots us back again to the profound richness of these arrangements, the tones selected and the sensuousness with which they assemble even in their abrasion. The album is sequenced beautifully, maintaining a sense of pop vibrance even as it alters its scale from monolithic and universe-filling to intimate and consoling. This record bleeds history, clearly composed by a keen-eared student of the world of pop music of all spheres. Anyone can place wise words over hackneyed unlistenable shit, but that doesn’t crack open the hard shell protecting our hearts from the tumultuous storms and violence of the world. It calls to mind two chairs in a dimly-lit grey room, you in one chair and Shamir in another, this music emerging as if by spiritual magic from the air as this genderless and patient figure calls you to answer certain questions yourself in honesty. Great pop uses great melodies to slip through the cracks in our armor such that otherwise simple turns of phrase that abstracted from their context might be meaningless suddenly feel like a knife plunging into our chest or else a key turning the lock in our ribcage. Heterosexuality is great pop. I have questions to consider.
Label: AntiFragile Music
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.