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I don’t know about you, but when I was 20 years old I was at university “studying” and being a lazy, feckless waste of space, living on toast and breakfast cereals. Steve Lacy, on the other hand, has been writing, performing and producing music since the age of 15 with his bandmates in The Internet (from 2015’s Ego Death onwards) and for a glittering array of stars in the musical firmament. As well as solo outings for his friends and bandmates, he has worked with Kali Uchis, Solange, Blood Orange, Mac Miller and Kendrick Lamar to name but an illustrious few.
Despite a set of songs being released as an EP in 2017 (Steve Lacy’s Demo), Apollo XXI is his debut proper and it finds him contemplating his identity and place in the world, along with a healthy dose of sexual longing. Given the roll call of famously talented collaborators, two things might strike you. Firstly that it would be crammed full with reciprocal guest spots to “raise its profile” and secondly that the musical palette might be a more expansive and expensive sounding affair.
You’d be wrong on both counts though. A resolute do-it-yourself atmosphere permeates throughout and there is a refreshing lack of star-studded buddies crowding the track list. That there is an innate charm to the album is, therefore, entirely down to the artist and his approach to making music. He is, after all, famed for his use of his iPhone to create beats and laying down guitar tracks (albeit through an additional tool). It is heartening to have an artist stick entirely to his principles, even when the opportunity to abandon them must be thrust in his face by all and sundry.
Brevity is the name of the game here (one track excepted) and that also works in his favor—there are no interminable stretches of self-indulgence. It is sharp, focused and to the point, even though the aesthetics might suggest otherwise. The lyrics of opener “Only If” offer a glimpse into the mindset of the prodigious talent: “If I could travel through time, I think I / Would tell myself from the past ‘You’ll be fine.’”
The laidback snap of the beat and the warped sitar-like sounds marry perfectly with his equally horizontal delivery. Further evidence of a soul struggling to find its place in the world is provided by the first section of “Like Me”—the sound of an artist coming to terms with his sexuality: “How many out there just like me? / How many others not gon’ tell their family? / How many scared to lose their friends like me? I wonder, I wonder.”
Part 2 of the song brings some heavenly background vocals to the table and a simple beat alongside clean keyboard lines and strings, before part 3 is a blissful, dreamily wistful slice of reflection. As the sole lengthy piece on the album, it works due to the clearly defined movements and the shift from pondering his place in the world to the realization that life is transitory and therefore such concerns are moot.
“Playground” is a superb slice of funk pop with an elastic bassline, which will doubtless draw comparison to Prince, while the hurdy gurdy keys of “Basement Jack” add character to a driving groove. “Guide” also bears some comparison to the Purple Yoda with its jerky funk driven by a simple bass line and Lacy’s falsetto. Indeed there is something in the do-it-all approach that echoes the early work of the maestro—thoughts of which are not exactly dispelled by the sinuous sensuality of “Lay Me Down.” The simplest lyrics imaginable, a low-down, dirty groove and a restrained guitar solo all bear the hallmarks of Prince.
Elsewhere there is the breezy pop of “Hate CD” during which he talks of needing an intervention due to his love of the wrong person and the slight, guitar-led “In Lust We Trust.” Both of which pale next to “Love 2 Fast.” Initially sounding like it might turn into Cream’s “Bell Bottom Blues,” it quickly becomes a fuzzed up, guitar-fest. Distortion pedal turned up, he lets rip on a solo that hits a sweet spot.
There’s a slight and shoulder shrug inducing piece with Amandla Stenberg on violin before the final two tracks wrap things up beautifully. “N Side” is a sultry, lazy slice of sexed-up musing that sidles by at a snail’s pace. “Outro Freestyle/4Ever” takes an eerie organ run and adds his trademark beats and a robotically monotonous rapping style, before segueing into a sample of “Exit Scott (Interlude)” from Solange’s When I Get Home (which Lacy co-wrote) that soars heavenwards despite the stately beat. That contrast between slow and steady beat and gospel dynamic is a match made in heaven.
It is refreshing to listen to an R&B album that bares only the DNA of its creator—normally these affairs are crowded with writers, producers and guest spots, but this, this is all Steve Lacy and it shines with his principles and influences. And that is a good thing, a very good thing indeed.
Notable Tracks: "Lay Me Down" | “Love 2 Fast” | "N Side" | “Playground”