Shamir's new album, 'Heterosexuality,' confronts how the public viewed him back in 2014, when his debut single nearly made him a pop star at the age of 19.



Shamir became a teenage sensation back in 2014 with this song.


SHAMIR: (Rapping) Hi. Hi. Howdy. Howdy. Hi. Hi. While everyone is minus, you could call me multiply. Just so you know, yes, yes, I'm that guy. You could get five fingers and I'm not waving hi.

MARTINEZ: "On The Regular" could've turned Shamir into the next big pop star. But he retreated from the public eye almost as quickly as he appeared. And that's because the media focused more on his gender than his music.

SHAMIR: I have so much trauma from my debut record when I was, like, 19, you know? I was out, non-binary kid when that concept was still so foreign. And it was rare that I would interview with anyone who wanted to talk about my music, like, at all. Like, it was just about, like, my identity, my sexuality, like, whatever. And I'm, like, 19.

MARTINEZ: Now, seven years and seven albums later, Shamir's tackling that trauma head on in his latest album, titled "Heterosexuality"


SHAMIR: (Singing) It was all eyes on me from the attention I received. I didn't want it. I couldn't submit to the damage.

I've always talked about my queerness and sang about my queerness in, like, my music. And I think what kind of makes this record different is that it's really about my relationship as a queer person with the, like, very binary, heterosexual world. Like, I've been out my entire career. Like, I have very supportive parents. Like, I've never really had, like, the type of internal struggle that a lot of other queer people have had. My trauma lies in just, like, the world, like, basically being mad at that, I feel.

MARTINEZ: Is it more of society's problem more than your problem?

SHAMIR: Exactly. I think this record was about society's problem with me.


SHAMIR: (Singing) When my head is clear, the past inches near, along with everything I want to leave behind. So it's cold brew and ginger beer to get rid of these nightmares that's made me the void I know I am. Fall in me and never land.

MARTINEZ: I want to go back for a second to your first big hit, "On The Regular." That was a huge hit. And that intense spotlight really made you kind of retreat from writing music for a while. Can you take us back to that time in your career a little bit, what you were feeling and why you did what you did?

SHAMIR: Well, I wrote that song in, like, 15 minutes...


MARTINEZ: Fifteen minutes. Wow.

SHAMIR: ...As a joke. And it just took on a life of its own. I didn't think anyone would like it. And then, you know, it became what it became. And then it took over my life and everything else. But that was a time where it was really, really hard for me because after that song and after that whole album cycle, really, I did not feel in control of my art. I felt like the teat of a cow (laughter). Like, I felt like I was supposed to just, like, been wrung out for my sweet nectar. And the people in charge will do what they want with it. And I think that stress made me basically stop producing the milk. And it wasn't until I felt a level of liberation that I was able to create again.


SHAMIR: (Singing) You're just stuck in the box that was made for me. And you're mad I got out, and I'm living free. Free your mind. Come outside. Pledge allegiance to the gay agenda.

MARTINEZ: Shamir's music now exists in a culture that's more accepting of gender expression outside of the traditional binary. For example, these days, pop sensations like Harry Styles pose on the cover of Vogue in skirts and dresses.

When Harry Styles was on that cover and it got so well received, you're not being allowed to maybe do some of that a few years earlier. But a white pop star gets to do it...


MARTINEZ: ...And all of a sudden, now everyone is good with it.

SHAMIR: Yeah. I felt nothing. I mean, this is a tale as old as time. Like, I don't - (laughter) I felt nothing and, like, congratulatory all at once. Like, great. This was, like, a furthering of a certain type of liberation. But the person who is going to move the totem pole is always going to be the person with, like, the most privilege. And I was saying this to a friend, who's also in music and who's also Black, we can't allow ourselves to care about, like, what's fair or, like, (laughter) you know, true equality in this business - or at least just in this society. If we allow ourselves to be uprooted by the frustration, then the same systems that we're fighting against have won, but just in a different way. They got through a different door.


SHAMIR: (Singing) The reward for all of the strength I hold within me - so much that it's almost killing me, too.

MARTINEZ: You've said that "Heterosexuality" is an album where you're really addressing some of the trauma you've experienced in the past. For people that are going to be listening to it, what are you hoping that they're hearing? What message are you putting out there with this?

SHAMIR: I feel like there's really no mission statement. And this - after eight records, I feel - this is the first time that I've said this about any of my records. A song like "Cisgender" is clear about, like, what it means to me. But it can mean a lot of other things to, like, other people who aren't even like queer or who are cisgender. You know, I got signed because the head of my label, who is cisgender, heterosexual man, was so moved by "Cisgender."


SHAMIR: (Singing) I'm not cisgender. I'm not binary trans. I don't want to be a girl. I don't want to be a man. I'm just existing on this godforsaken land. And you can take it or leave it. Or you can just stay back.

Being able to take something that I feel very alone in and be able to turn it into something that can resonate with anyone, it helps me. And it helps me feel less alone.


SHAMIR: (Singing) Stay back.

MARTINEZ: Shamir Bailey's new album is called "Heterosexuality." Shamir, thanks for the time.

SHAMIR: Thank you.


SHAMIR: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.