Steve Lacy – Apollo XXI

An astounding display of musical dexterity...

“Wonderkid”, “heartthrob”, “genius”: the first album by Steve Lacy has been well and truly hyped. Apart from his work with The Internet, he’s joined up with Blood Orange, Kendrick Lamar, Solange and, more recently, Vampire Weekend. The Compton musician and producer turned 21 on the eve of its release.

The ambition behind ‘Apollo XXI’ was already easily perceptible on singles like ‘Playground’, whose energy could best be termed ‘Yung Prince’, and becomes clearer still over the course of its other 11 songs. In tandem with this growing self-assurance, his voice strides around, opting for falsetto, and sometimes for rapping.

On ‘4ever/Outro Freestyle’ and ‘Basement Jack’, the latter sits well but is regrettably scant. One YouTube comment reads: “If Steve Lacy starts rapping it’s over for the industry”.

It’s as though he’s flexing, showing what he can do, a sprinter warming up in front of a TV camera. There’s a kind of gentle, unreproachable dilettantism at play: he clearly wants to be several things at once – ‘rockstar’, ice-cool R&Ber, Prince – but the album doesn’t really suffer for it. There are commonalities, like those slightly unconventional chord stabs, the assertive rhythms, synths that are a tad whiny, arrangements that fall somewhere in between intricacy and simplicity and which, like his earlier releases, tend to be short and sweet. There are shades of artists he’s expressed admiration for – Thundercat, Stereolab, Pharrell – too.

Generally, Lacy goes in for the universal. Lines like the phone conversation in single ‘N-Side’, “hey baby, […] we’ve been crushing on each other for years/ I guess I’d just really like to know if you feel the same way about me as I feel about you”, might well give rise to some eye-rolling.

But even with this sort of intimate direct address there’s a desire to include the listener. ‘Like Me’ is the most interesting in this sense: a great nine-minute-long “middle finger” of a song on which he addresses his own “journey” and his bisexuality. He makes things clear early on: “As I grow, I don’t know if you can still relate, you know. That’s what I’m afraid of. I just want to relate to everyone”.

While it’s perhaps not as artless as his earlier releases, nor was it recorded on an iPhone, it retains much of their charm, and builds upon it. In the chit-chat at the start of ‘Amandla’s Interlude’ his collaborator remarks, “We really just wrote that together with, like, minimal effort”. Lacy replies, “Yeah, it’s nothing”. Infuriatingly, it’s probably true. What can’t he do?


Words: Wilf Skinner

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