With his unique brand of sun-drenched funk and lively love songs, which move from joyous to melancholic at a blistering pace, 21-year-old Steve Lacy has appeared destined for big things ever since emerging as a member of stupidly talented LA collective The Internet. His debut album Apollo XXI solidifies this potential, suggesting an artist that, although still a little rough around the edges, has a glowing career in front of him.
The spaced out funk of “Playground” recalls Prince at his most sexy; it’s the kind of bop that will slot in perfectly into one of your summer playlists. The raw “In Lust We Trust,” with its distorted Mac DeMarco-esque guitars and soothing vocals, is also beautiful, but in a much quieter way, with the more considered track bottling the feeling of finally growing up and getting tired of one night stands, as Lacy mournfully croons: “I’ve had enough / tired of the meaningless, feelingless fucks.”
But the centre piece of this record is the ambitious “Like Me,” which uses the studio as a confessional boost as Lacy opens up about his sexuality via bold lyrics such as “I only feel energy / I see no gender.” The song’s music is ambitious, transitioning from stoner rock chord progressions to gentler introspection via warming synths and heavenly kicks of the glockenspiel. Towards the end of the track, Lacy delicately sings the words: “We’ll all fade away.”
These closing bars suggest homophobia is ultimately pointless, as in the end we all share the same mortality so deserve a chance to live our very best lives. The track, which is nine minutes long, is filled with ambition and Lacy should be praised for not sugarcoating his sexuality, a criticism you could perhaps throw at someone like Tyler, the Creator, an artist who still seems scared to be completely open about who he is and therefore creates more questions than answers. “Like Me” is a brave statement, especially when you consider just how young Lacy is, and very much deserves to become an anthem for young people grappling with themselves — the song feels like a warm embrace for anyone who has ever struggled with their identity.
But as great as this album’s highs are, there’s also a lot of directionless music here which can sound more like the by-product of an experimental jam session than something fully formed. Songs like “Empty” and “Hate CD,” although both stirring, don’t really go anywhere, leaving you feeling unsatisfied. There’s also nothing on this record that’s nearly as fun or catchy as upbeat early Lacy tracks such as “Dark Red” (a beat that Lacy later reimagined when co-producing Kendrick Lamar’s psychedelic “PRIDE”) and “C U Girl,” and I’d like to see Lacy indulge in these more poppier sensibilities in the future. This might ultimately be the key to taking him to another level as an artist. Although, perhaps the hypnotically beautiful folksy violin on “Amandla’s Interlude” is a clearer glimpse of the grander sonics Lacy will embrace in the future.
The beat for “Only If” has an electrical charge cutting through it, and that’s exactly what Lacy feels like to modern music — he’s a lightning rod to the game, someone set to take pop music in a new direction just like Frank Ocean did when he emerged at the start of the decade. But if Lacy is to drop an album as fully formed as Channel Orange, he’s going to have to start making music with a lot more polish and conviction. Apollo XXI is a lovely little record, but you sense its creator is only giving us a small glimpse of what he’s ultimately capable of, and that Steve Lacy’s best music is still on the horizon. But even if this record is a little rough around the edges, it feels like the starting point of something very special and has enough sparky originality (seriously, even Hendrix would be proud of the in-your-face guitar which kicks in towards the end of “Love 2 Fast”) to ring off all through your summer.
Steve Lacy’s ‘Apollo XXI’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our reviews, head here.