Steve Lacy: Apollo XXI Album Review

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By Keller Bradberry
Music Journalist

Steve Lacy, 21-year-old Compton native, makes soft-funk with great attention to song-building and guitar-playing. He began making his music via mobile device. He first worked with an alt-funk group, The Internet, as a guitarist and producer on their third studio album Ego Death; two tracks from the EP were made from Lacy’s iPhone, one being “Palace/Curse,” earning the group a Grammy nomination while he was still in highschool.

Lacy has since collaborated with artists such as Kali Uchis, Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend and Tyler, the Creator. One single of his well-received debut EP Steve Lacy’s Demos, “Dark Red,” was also (impressively) recorded and produced entirely on his iPhone. His hypnotic guitar playing coincides wholly with his layered vocals and intimate lyricism as he sings the imploring leading line: “Something bad is ‘bout to happen to me.” Lacy’s casual confidence and intuition in guitar and production in these 13 minutes of demos makes a strong impression as a musician.

However, Lacy’s got a new batch of funky-sexy songs on Apollo XXI, his most thematically driven and produced project yet. It’s unique because it’s his longest work to date, and it mostly saw the use of equipment other than just an iPhone and a mic stopper. On Apollo XXI, he strums from style to style between tracks and confidently delivers some of the most unassuming, yet grandiose, melodies. 

A significant track from the album is “Like Me” featuring Daisy Hamel-Buffa, an anthem of the accompanying anxieties of embracing his identity as he sings: “How many work on self-acceptance like me? How many others not gon’ tell their family? How many scared to lose their friends like me?”

Hamel-Buffa also reflects upon her sexual identity: “I used to want to be normal, I used to lay out the labels and pray that one of them stuck.” The song is triumphant and catchy until the switch at 5:20, where he then sings of his isolation in the journey of coming into himself. He reflects: “I cried to my window. No one heard my pain, just my window.” As consistent as this song building is with the rest of the album, it contains perhaps the strongest message of Apollo XXI; “I only feel energy, I see no gender.”

I’ve had “Love 2 Fast” on repeat since the release – it’s a departure from his soft-funk style into a slacker indie-rock ballad, with simple drums and a satisfying chord progression. Still, it seems distinctly Lacy, rather than an artist dabbling in and blending genres. The song is perhaps his greatest exhibition of guitar skills and vocal delivery as he passionately delivers another ear-catching opener: “Something in the wind outside today, and it ain’t cool. Got me thinking about how things decay, and about you.” This song isn’t the only one to showcase his unique voice; “Playground” is a joyous summer-vibed funk tune with confident falsetto.

Directly after the rockstar guitar solo at the end of “Love 2 Fast” comes a lovely acoustic duet titled “Amandla’s Interlude.” Amandla Stenberg is most notable for her role as Rue from “The Hunger Games”, but her violin performance in this low-stakes jam session in harmony with Lacy’s guitar makes this nonverbal track one of my favorite from the album. 

If that didn’t get you hooked, let the interlude play through to “N Side,” insecure yet erotic and sensual, the cheap drum machines and well-placed lead guitar give authenticity while he sings the prominent hook: “Tell me, is it inside?” The hook takes on a dual meaning for sexual interaction but also deep romantic attraction. Toward the end of the track he features a voicemail left by heart-throbbing Lacy; he says, “We’ve been crushing on each other for years…are there feelings for me inside of your heart? Let me know, bye.”  

Apollo XXI is really a joy to listen through: it’s hypnotic, personal and irresistibly funky to the ears. All the practice of playing guitar and pushing buttons on garage band have culminated into a polished yet rough-edged piece of work from one of the most promising and unique musicians of our generation. Apollo XXI represents Lacy’s realization of his rockstar ethos, embracing of his voice and honing of his natural talents.

Lacy is a rockstar, in the fullest modern sense of the word. It’s also notable that he’s young and confident, maybe even arrogant, but ultimately wise beyond his years. He knows he was made for this.

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