The Internet’s Steve Lacy shared N Side” on Monday, his first solo music since the 2017 EP Steve Lacy’s Demo. Steve Lacy isn’t 20 yet, but he’s one of the most intriguing artists in the music world.
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Steve Lacy: Conversations is a collection of thirty-four interviews with the innovative saxophonist and jazz composer. Lacy’s virtuoso is bringing Neo-soul and R&B back into the limelight. Apollo XXI’s release party wasn’t so much a party as it was a line—a huge line of young people, stretching farther than the decorative lineup of light aircraft and helicopters, all waiting to buy Steve Lacy merchandise and get an autograph from the man himself. I’m usually not a fan of waiting in lines, but Lacy put in the effort to make the experience personable and (for the lack of a better term) Comptonesque. Lacy invited DJs, put a lowrider Chevy Impala on display, and hired Compton Vegan to cater soul food. I also realized that the venue doubled as a aeronautics museum; many attendees, in their tight fitted beanies and rolled up jeans, took their time to view the displays. If Lacy’s goal was to show his fans the old and new of Compton, he succeeded.
On Friday, May 24, 2019, Steve Lacy dropped his anticipated debut album, Apollo XXI.” His excited fan base had been eagerly counting down the days since his new project was hinted at months prior. Despite only releasing a demo titled Steve Lacy’s Demo,” occasionally dropping singles, and collaborating with other artists before Apollo XXI,” his audience was quick to realize Lacy’s talent, creating an unquenchable need for more of his productions that was left unsatisfied until now.
The nebulous, free-ranging sound of Apollo XXI is hard to categorise. There are strong elements of funk, R&B and hip-hop – all categories unified by black music genealogy – but they’re shot through a lo-fi pop prism and it’s Lacy’s vocals that cut through the most. They evoke remarkable unbotheredness; extreme chill even in the throes of intense passion. It’s a cool-headed confidence that he radiates in person as well as on his records, a kind of self-possession that emits so powerfully you could feel it even if he was standing silently in the back of a crowded room (he usually is).
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.
They’d come from down the block and from miles away on the afternoon of May 24, the release day of Lacy’s debut album, Apollo XXI.” As the chopper landed, the singer, in a flowy unbuttoned pink shirt, strolled into the throng where he high-fived everyone he could reach before embracing his mother and his manager in the hangar.
N Side” picks up right where Lacy’s most recent solo release, Steve Lacy’s Demo , left off in 2017. A slow, automated drum part carries the R&B beat forward with padded bass echoing behind it. Lacy turns up the reverb and lets his laid back singing float over it all, bringing some gentle strumming of electric guitar into the mix.
The LP is approximately 43 minutes long and contains 12 tracks in total that fall somewhere in between the categories of R&B, Pop, and funk, but the exact genre of Steve Lacy’s songs is left a mystery. He has a very specific sound that is instantly recognizable through the GarageBand drums and the iconic bass melodies, and these two qualities are incorporated into Apollo XXI,” giving it the Lacy vibe his fan base has all grown to know and love.
Steve Lacy isn’t 20 yet, but he’s one of the most intriguing artists in the music world. Lacy’s musical journey began in his high school jazz band where he met recording artist Thundercat’s younger brother, who brought Lacy along to work on The Internet’s third studio album Ego Death.
This volume brings together interviews that appeared in a variety of magazines between 1959 and 2004. Conducted by writers, critics, musicians, visual artists, a philosopher, and an architect, the interviews indicate the evolution of Lacy’s extraordinary career and thought. Lacy began playing the soprano saxophone at sixteen, and was soon performing with Dixieland musicians much older than he. By nineteen he was playing with the pianist Cecil Taylor, who ignited his interest in the avant-garde. He eventually became the foremost proponent of Thelonious Monk’s music. Lacy played with a broad range of musicians, including Monk and Gil Evans, and led his own bands. A voracious reader and the recipient of a MacArthur genius” grant, Lacy was particularly known for setting to music literary texts—such as the Tao Te Ching, and the work of poets including Samuel Beckett, Robert Creeley, and Taslima Nasrin—as well as for collaborating with painters and dancers in multimedia projects.
By the time he’d turned 17, Lacy, a proficient guitarist and bassist, had already earned a Grammy nomination for his work executive producing Ego Death, the third studio album from The Internet. By the time he turned 19, he’d earned production credits on projects by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Denzel Curry and GoldLink He’s only gotten busier since then. Last year he produced Crush, the delightful EP by R&B singer Ravyn Lenae, and released Hive Mind with The Internet. The latter is a masterful funk-slash-R&B album that is now a mainstay on Spotify hook-up playlists. After that, he went on an international tour. When he returned home, he took a mere month and a half to write, record and produce Apollo XXI. That month is where I just kind of pumped everything. It happened really fast,” he remembers.
After he and his Internet bandmates released solo projects in 2017, they worked on their 2018 follow-up, Hive Mind, released in July of that year. Lacy went on to produce for Solange Kali Uchis, on her debut album, Isolation, Mac Miller, on his 2018 album, Swimming and was featured on Dev Hynes’ Blood Orange album, Negro Swan. Steve revealed in 2018 that he produced for fellow Compton native, rapper YG and that he was now using devices, other than his phone, to produce music.
Apollo XXI is where a lot of this changes. From Lacy’s Instagram announcement in bright-orange advertisements, his recent work with Vampire Weekend and his collaborators promoting him all over Twitter, there’s been obvious intention to gain Lacy some attention long before the album’s release. Lacy’s been making music for a while now, but he’s a mere newbie to the audiences of his peers.
Lacy, who was brought on to play some keys on the record, ended up producing half of the tracks on Ego Death. The Internet’s mixture of hip-hop, funk, soul music, and alternative rock captivated audiences and critics alike, and before Lacy had graduated high school he had notched a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album.
Lacy’s first visit to Europe came in 1965, with a visit to Copenhagen in the company of Kenny Drew ; he went to Italy and formed a quartet with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and the South African musicians Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo (their visit to Buenos Aires is documented on The Forest and the Zoo , ESP, 1967). After a brief return to New York, he returned to Italy, then in 1970 moved to Paris, where he lived until the last two years of his life. He became a widely respected figure on the European jazz scene, though he remained less well known in the U.S.
The 21st birthday is a rite of passage for most American kids. It’s the moment they cross the channel into legal adulthood. You can drink now. Rent a car. Adopt a child. In some states, purchase weed. The American cultural canon demands an extravagant celebration: a shot of tequila at midnight, seven more before last call. Not for Steve Lacy, though. The musician forgot about his 21st birthday.
Just Go Forward” hops back and forth, with contained energy, over twitchy rhythm guitar and at least three different drum tracks before erupting in a brass-punctuated chant that sums up their musical philosophy: Just go forward! Don’t look back! Always forward!” Wanna Come Down” incarnates that principle, propelling its horn blasts and serrated wah-wah guitars round and round in a spiral; occasional key changes make the return to the refrain sound all the more inevitable, as if the song were a vicious cycle.
Those were his first music memories, and you can see how this free-roaming diet of music would inform his own genre-agnostic approach. His older sister bumping Your Body Is a Wonderland while he memorised the gospel songs he learned to sing in church. And then there’s what he calls drinking music” – party stuff like Too $hort, that he listened to with his middle school friends. That’s when I was still kind of trendy,” he says, sheepishly. I wasn’t as artsy then. I was battling trying to be an artsy boy while being a cool teenager.” His mother, eager to encourage his interest in music, enrolled him in the Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles – HART’s, for short – which is located on the campus of Narbonne High School. In the 9th grade, he met Jameel Bruner, a musician who played the keys for a jazz band. Jameel, now known as Kintaro, was older than Lacy, and at the time, a member of The Internet.
This isn’t to suggest Lacy’s work is monotonous; Rather, it’s his efforts veering more toward improving the artistry he’s already set on his radar. After all, the cuts are a lot crisper this time around than they were on Steve Lacy’s Demo in 2017. This bodes well for the album as the smooth, soulful production carries the airy, carefree lyrics of the album. He’s a lot less apprehensive than he was on former efforts, more willing to announce his presence and explore his uncertainty than run from them. And perhaps this is Apollo XXI’s ultimate strength. Rather than taking a different route, he perfects the road he’s already on with a whole slew of new tricks up his sleeve — not a bad move for someone who’s still relatively new to the public eye.
Simultaneously faint and ornate, the album accrues light, feathery instruments to no end — strings, bilious keyboard swirl, breathy harmonies. The resulting songs aren’t topheavy, exactly, but they are as unwieldy as stacks of feathers. While the lyrics describe sexual anxiety and coming out with empathetic generality, Lacy’s hesitant singing often disappears beneath an oceanic expanse of high, wet, trebly rhythm guitar, the album’s loudest and mildest ingredient.
He paged through the drum presets in GarageBand for a while before picking a messy-sounding kit. With two thumbs, he tapped out a simple beat, maybe 30 seconds long. Then he went back to the Rickenbacker. He played a riff he’d stumbled on while tuning, recording it on a separate GarageBand track over top of the drums.
Like his predecessors, Lacy is voracious. He finds styles, digests them and spits them out in new shapes and colors. The praise of this record writes itself. Playground” sounds like a response to the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back” if it was written by Prince. Lay Me Down” channels the same vibe as D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel).” These comparisons are easy to reach for, but they do not do justice to Lacy’s vision—the bare maximum,” as he mumbles during the intro of Amandla’s Interlude.” Apollo XXI may be Steve Lacy’s debut, but he holds nothing back. This is the work of an artist emerging, not quite fully formed, but rather fully open. Both (laid) bare and maximalist.
Steve Lacy has produced a Grammy nominated album, made tracks for Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Tyler, The Creator, and Goldlink, released a solo EP, and hosted his own Tedx Talk. He’s 18. Also, he makes all his music on his phone.
Lacy is an artist who sounds like he’s been in the industry for decades, even though he turned 21 in May and used his iPhone to produce the tracks that catapulted him to fame. He’s a voice for Generation Z, singing about sexual fluidity, love and finding serenity in a complicated world.