Steve Lacy is doing great. The singer/guitarist/producer’s studio wizardry is a well-known commodity at this point. The Compton native had a Grammy nomination before most kids his age had attended senior prom. His skills have been solicited by such top of the bill names as Dev Hynes, Solange, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar. All this, in part, is what makes Apollo XXI — Lacy’s debut studio album — feel like less of a breakout moment and more of a “Yup, sounds about right.”
This is, of course, not to say that the album is boring. Apollo XXI finds Lacy’s sterling musicianship and vocal work at their most brilliant and show-stopping. It’s a new height for a young auteur who has been cultivating a sound of his own for years now.
When the album’s first single, “Playground,” was released, I was blown away by how immediately groovy it was and how much it did sound like early Prince, but I was most impressed by how fully-realized it all felt. It sounded like someone had very neatly cut a slice of 1979 and served it to me on a Melmac dinnerplate.
This same preternatural sonic/lyric/vibe coherence is present in every pocket of Apollo XXI. Each moment is more rich and vivid thank the next. “Hate CD” is the apex of the teen romance film where the protagonist begins to fall for the person they weren’t supposed to. It sounds how a first kiss tastes. “N Side” is the 2 am, drunken, spine-tingling rush of having finally built up the courage to send that person you’ve been seeing the “What is this?” text. “Basement Jack” came on and suddenly I was blowing down the 101 in a late model convertible with my unbuttoned, silk shirt flapping in the wind.
Apollo XXI is also a compendium of some of Lacy’s most personal and mature songwriting to date. On the album, he delivers the sexy, R&B missives he’s built his wheelhouse around but scratches that one layer deeper, replacing cheap euphemism for poetic metaphor. Take “Guide,” where his reedy falsetto sings, “I could be your guide, know you’re gonna keep it under / I’ve been there before, you just got to get over / Other side of this picket fence built by jokers / I could get you here, you just got to get over.” It’s a subtle entreaty to a lover who’s still in the closet and a clever takedown of conventional sexual mores.
These lyrical moments, like the production they’re arranged within, seem to pour out of Lacy as fluidly and instinctually as speech. In fact, the few segments on the album that don’t work as well are almost always the ones that feel most premeditated. “Like Me” — the nine-minute-long slog of second track — is Lacy’s conscious attempt at addressing the public question of his sexuality, which he has stated he didn’t want to make “a big deal.” It’s spoken prelude with all its performed informality (“Uh, I just wanna, just see who can relate, who’s out there”) veers a little too close to Logic territory for my personal taste. But even when he begins to stray from the Lord’s light, Lacy always finds a way to reel it back in. The song’s second section — a brief, trippy diversion about flowers and crying alone — is arguably my favorite moment on the album.
There is something uniquely sublime about recognizing an artist’s sound. It’s a sensation Lacy has treated his fans to on a number of occasions over the years. When his brassy, thinly-filtered guitar tone kickstarted Kendrick Lamar’s “Pride,” for example. Or more recently, when that surfy, sharply-picked chord progression materialized out of thin air in the middle of Solange’s “Exit Scott (Interlude).” They’re little moments that remind you that a musician’s artistry can sometimes be as potent and singular as a fingerprint.