Let’s just start with “Guide,” demonstrable proof that 21-year-old Steve Lacy, the Compton guitarist turned producer turned fledgling R&B sex god, has better command of his falsetto than singers decades his senior. There’s a lot to love here—the proggy drums, the farting bassline, the way Lacy’s voice floats above the surging bridge and then melts back into it, the way the whole song seems to sizzle. “Guide” arrives five tracks into Apollo XXI, his cleverly titled debut that feels, throughout its 43 minutes, like a space flight destined for some swanky astro-lounge at the edge of the galaxy. So as space is vast and unknowable and pits man against himself, so too is adulthood. The same goes for emergent stardom.
I keep thinking about this update Lacy posted to Instagram in early May, expressing gratitude for all the interest in his first project since 2017’s short-but-encouraging Steve Lacy’s Demo. His eyes are wide and wild in the photo, whatever he’s doing with his mouth is somewhere between a grimace and a smile—I sent a similar kind of picture to my mom once to let her know I was “doing fine.” Remember, if you will, what it was like in your early 20s—the world was impossibly big and enticing, and you were serious about taking it down in one sitting. It was only once you were out there on your own that you realized how much you’d bitten off, how difficult it’d be to chew.
Steve Lacy joined Los Angeles funk/neo-soul collective the Internet at the tender age of 17, crafting a sizable chunk of 2015’s Ego Death. Although he was credited as a co-executive producer to Syd Bennett and Matt Martians, Lacy had to stay inside and do his homework. When the band began touring the album the following spring, he was stuck finishing his last year of high school. Since then, he’s carved out quite the creative space for himself—he produced another Internet album, became a Louis Vuitton model, and made music for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Solange, and Vampire Weekend, mostly on his iPhone. His world is bigger now than when he made Demo, a sub-15-minute “song series” teasing ideas that weren’t fully formed but felt like too much fun to let go of. Take “Looks” for example, which makes me think of bell-bottoms and water beds and lava lamps but reads as a rejection of such artifice (“What if I got with you and turned out to be a total dick?”). His falsetto was in its infancy here; on Apollo it feels safe to say it’s in its adolescence.
Lacy’s legend is already in place—he is the second-most recognizable member of a Grammy-nominated group that made its bones interpreting classic elements of the funk and soul genres for a generation still on their parents’ cellular plan. The Internet, for the record, was not Grammy-nominated before he showed up. There’s been lots of coverage leaning on Lacy’s imitable DIY approach to music, but always in reference to other, bigger names; inquiring minds wanted to know just how he made “Pride.” on his phone. What could he do if the figurative paint were cleared? What might he say? How else might he floor us?
With songs like “Playground,” the third track on Apollo. For one thing it’s beautifully arranged. Lacy wafts off of a jangling one-chord guitar, reminding me, in different moments, of other psych-soul stars that wore loud, sheer shirts and patent leather boots. It’s sort of Bootsy, but also sort of Prince, and to be honest, there might be some Steely Dan in there. Two minutes and 45 seconds in, “Playground” transforms and ascends, but still feels contained to Lacy’s bedroom. Much of Apollo has this quality—simultaneously polished and homey; compact, but also loose and physical. “Lay Me Down” is all quiet words behind closed doors punctuated by a guitar solo that is not only soaring, but also sexy.
Apollo is pretty horny on the whole, as evidenced by the lead single “N Side,” where Lacy asks in his shallow baritone, over and over, “Is it inside?” He’s talking to a girl there, but on “Hate CD,” which would fit neatly into the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie, Lacy is yearning for “his affection.” On “Outro Freestyle/4ever,” he guns on someone—maybe himself?—for talking “pussy” but “sucking dick.” Steve Lacy suspected he was bisexual after being kissed by another man on New Year’s Eve 2017—in an interview last year he recalled this kiss feeling wrong, on account of his Christian upbringing, but seems to have mellowed out about his sexuality and the looming prospect of damnation since then.
Not that much, though. Stepping out, on your own, as yourself, is still heady stuff. Apollo is as much a chance for Lacy to make a statement as demonstrate his most compelling strengths, and “Like Me” does both. If there were any misgivings about what’s going on: “This is about me and what I am,” Lacy says. “I don’t wanna make a big deal.” It’s a nine-minute song, and a little on the nose, but no less sincere—“I only see energy I see no gender” is still kind of a lot. You feel, listening to that song and the rest of Apollo, Lacy’s struggle to own every part of his freaky creative self and still not disappoint his mom. “Like Me” occurs in three movements—the first is pure confusion, the second an ansty, stripped-down interlude that exudes melancholy. The third is a smooth-jazz balm: angelic voices almost whisper “we’ll all fade away” over soft guitars and even softer drums. To my mind, that’s self-acceptance.