Three years in the past, during a nocturnal drive through the winding shadows of Topanga Canyon, Steve Lacy confronted mortality head-on.
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A collision occurred when a intoxicated driver slammed into him at high speed on the rugged cliffs that link the valley to the beach near Los Angeles. Miraculously unscathed after his Tesla Model 3 was reduced to wreckage, Lacy, in the moments leading up to the impact, briefly came to terms with the possibility of his demise.
“Being on the brink of death, I had this epiphany that you could be doing everything correctly, and then some reckless individual could collide with your car head-on,” he reflects. “And that might be the end of it.”
The 25-year-old singer hailing from Compton, known for his track “Bad Habit,” was at that time in the initial phases of crafting his inaugural major label album, the successor to his solo debut, “Apollo XXI.” Did the close encounter with death alter his outlook on the album he was in the process of creating?
Pausing momentarily, Steve Lacy pushes his braids behind his ears and then shakes his head. “But it brought me closer to it.”
The resulting album, titled “Gemini Rights,” revolves around Lacy’s breakup with an ex-boyfriend. It’s a dynamic fusion of R&B, rock, and pop, featuring jazzy guitars and velvety hooks, reminiscent of both Stevie Wonder and Pharrell. The breakout single, “Bad Habit,” achieved global acclaim, amassing nearly 100 million YouTube views and 1 billion Spotify streams. The album not only secured Lacy a Grammy Award but also delivered a No. 1 hit single — an unexpected triumph for an artist who, throughout our conversation, disregards conventional benchmarks of success and rejects the term “the industry.”
“I don’t think I’m in the industry. I know what it is, but I feel so far removed from it,” asserts Lacy, who earned his first Grammy nomination at the age of 17, making him the youngest member of the neo-soul band the Internet. Since then, he has collaborated with A-list artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator, Vampire Weekend, Solange, J. Cole, and Kali Uchis. Even now, after settling on RCA as his label partner, Lacy claims that not much has changed. He chuckles at the notion that a label could dictate deadlines for his creative process and takes pride in turning down lucrative opportunities that lack “meaning” for him. When asked about whose guidance matters the most to him, he bluntly states, “I don’t really like advice.”
Defiant words come easily to someone who inadvertently created a TikTok phenomenon and crafted one of the freshest No. 1 hits in years: “Bad Habit” is a shape-shifting song with four hooks, devoid of the sterile gloss that often characterizes today’s radio hits. Lacy finds his status as a chart-topper “fucking hilarious.”
“They were insistent about it,” he mentions regarding the song. “I wasn’t a big fan.”
Certainly, the track holds significance beyond its commercial triumph. According to bass virtuoso Thundercat, a major influence and close collaborator of Lacy’s, the song marks a “victory for the love of music” in an era often characterized by a lack of emotion.
“Steve is everything I hoped and dreamed for in music,” says Thundercat. “He’s genuinely out there playing and singing — and he’s Black, and he’s young. People crave authentic music, man. That’s why Steve Lacy is crucial: He represents something much grander than his physical form suggests.”
While he gracefully handled the whirlwind of “Bad Habit,” Lacy was unprepared for the millions of fervent new fans it would bring him. Even now, he doesn’t exude the demeanor of a celebrity: tall and striking, with tattoos adorning his arms, his lean figure is camouflaged by loose brown pants and a thrifted red Gorillaz T-shirt. Here, in the courtyard of an upscale Manhattan hotel, there’s no rush for autographs or selfies.
Yet, after years of performing for indie music enthusiasts at laid-back shows, he suddenly found himself immersed in a sea of cheers and cellphone lights.
“At first, I was so thrown off,” he admits, “because the Internet shows are more intellectual. It was cool shit.” Leaning back with arms crossed, he mimics the demeanor of an unimpressed hipster. “And now, it’s kids.”
In an incident last October, Lacy lost his composure.
While performing “Bad Habit” in New Orleans, an audience member tossed a disposable camera onto the stage, hitting him in the chest. Lacy cut the song short — but not before picking up the fan’s camera and theatrically smashing it on the ground. Following a flurry of sensational headlines and social media commentary, Lacy defended himself on Instagram but conceded, “Maybe I could’ve reacted better?”
“These moments just blow up,” he remarks now, addressing the incident for the first time. “Once anything goes viral, it’s like that’s your entire identity. That’s what I despised most about that moment.”
The camera-smashing incident was a rare, albeit understandable, burst of emotion from an artist known for his nonchalant demeanor. It also marked an early instance of a troubling trend taking root in live music: In recent months, Bebe Rexha, Harry Styles, and Drake have all experienced instances where audience members hurled cellphones and other items at them, all in pursuit of capturing attention on TikTok.
Lacy chuckles. “People were mad at me for it, but now they’re like, ‘He was damn right — y’all should’ve listened to Steve!’ I didn’t apologize for that because I’m not wrong!”
Nevertheless, he’s warming up to the unfiltered enthusiasm of his young audience. “I had to come to terms with the fact that this is how these kids are,” Lacy says. “I was annoyed initially — they demand so much. Can you do this? Can you do that? I’m throwing this up here for you. I love you. But I don’t blame them anymore. Despite it irritating me sometimes, they’re just young. For a lot of them, it’s their first concert, so they don’t even know what concert etiquette is. I’m starting to appreciate them, and I couldn’t imagine my shows without them. They don’t care how uncool they may seem, and I respect that.”
He strongly rejects the notion that his concerts are attended by fans who only know one of his songs, a perception highlighted by a viral video where a crowd energetically sings the hook of “Bad Habit” but falls completely silent during the subsequent verse — a consequence of listening only to snippets on TikTok.
“I hate that narrative. No, damn it!” he declares. “I’ve got plenty of hooks that everyone sings along to. Let me set the record straight: That happened at a couple of shows, and only because I was doing too much, trying to get them to sing the whole verse. That was on me.”
He still complains about younger fans watching entire shows through their iPhone screens, but he’s willing to overlook it as long as he can see their eyes. “If I’m going to sing to you, let me sing to you,” he insists. In Columbus, Ohio, Lacy went beyond that, inviting a look-alike fan from the audience onstage to sing “Bad Habit.” A week earlier, in New York, Lacy acknowledged kids pressed against the barricade, assuring them, “I don’t take any of this for granted.” It’s not lost on him that just a few years ago, he was their age, spending his days idolizing Prince and scouring the internet for obscure Erykah Badu songs.
“It’s amazing that I get to shape these kids’ musical tastes,” Lacy expresses. “I’ve come to appreciate this lively, youthful energy.”
Growing up in Compton, music surrounded Lacy. His mother, an aspiring singer, and his three sisters provided backup vocals on both of Lacy’s albums. His own musical aspirations took form through Guitar Hero, the video game that inspired a generation of rock enthusiasts to pick up real instruments. At the age of 10, the same year his father passed away, Lacy did just that. Years later, he joined the jazz ensemble at a South L.A. private high school, where, as a freshman, he formed a bond with an older student named Jameel Bruner, a keyboardist (and younger brother of Thundercat), who would alter the trajectory of his life.
Lacy and Bruner, spent their free periods jamming in the band room until one day Bruner introduced Lacy to his band: the Internet. Soon, Lacy was collaborating with their producer, Matt Martians, and assumed a role the band members hadn’t realized they needed: guitarist.
In the early days, Lacy co-produced the beat for “Special Affair,” the lead single from the Internet’s 2015 album “Ego Death.” “It was only fitting to bring him into the band,” says Syd, the group’s lead singer. Lacy was still in high school, too young to join the band on tour.
After producing over half of the songs on “Ego Death,” he joined Syd as a lead vocalist on the Internet’s next album, 2018’s “Hive Mind.” When he produced Kendrick Lamar’s song “Pride” entirely on an iPhone 6, Lacy captured the industry’s attention and established himself as a trailblazer of music’s next generation.
He was also a teenager, still discovering his identity and how to express it.
In 2017, the year he dropped his inaugural solo project, “Steve Lacy’s Demo,” Lacy found himself engaging with fans on a Tumblr thread. When a commenter inquired if he would date a guy, Lacy casually responded, “Sure, why not.” Suddenly, headlines proclaimed: “Steve Lacy Comes Out as Bisexual.”
“But I didn’t really come out,” Lacy reflects now. “I didn’t intend to — it just sort of happened. I don’t see the need to announce my sexual preferences. I think it’s silly. I never felt compelled to come out.”
This experience marked Lacy’s first encounter with online backlash. When, in response to a follow-up question, Lacy mentioned he wasn’t interested in dating other Black men, he became the target of fan criticism and blogs labeling him as “anti-Black.” Lacy clarified at the time, stating, “I’m just not attracted to Black boys. … I still love them and want them to do well in life, we just won’t date.”
It was through news headlines that Syd, who had been openly gay for years, learned about Lacy’s queerness.
“I found out there was all that controversy, and that’s when I talked to him about it,” she says, recounting her most significant memory with her bandmate. The two were in New York and took a stroll to Starbucks, where they had a heart-to-heart. However, Syd, six years Lacy’s senior, recognized her audience. She refrained from offering advice on publicly embracing his sexuality — and Lacy didn’t seek any.
“I think being a gay man is very different from being a gay woman,” Syd notes. “I didn’t even want to assume that I knew what he was going through. I just wanted to let him know as a sister that you can play this as low-key or as high-key as you want to. It doesn’t matter, and whenever you’re ready to open up about it, we’re here.”
Lacy has since become more candid about his sexuality, especially through his lyrics. However, he emanates a sense of self-ownership that makes him hesitant to embrace labels. In an era where artists often leverage their identities or are involuntarily defined by them, Lacy dismisses the notion that his queerness shapes his art, and he isn’t preoccupied with representing a specific community.
“I never care to speak for anyone else because I think all of our experiences are so different from each other,” he asserts. “I guess I have a selfish perspective of myself in the world, and I’m just expressing myself. I’m not necessarily doing things for other people to feel good about themselves.”
Nevertheless, Lacy’s nonchalant attitude toward his sexuality is a form of radicalism. For a pop star at the top of the charts to sing about his ex-boyfriend’s “deep throat” and “heavy dick” on one of 2022’s biggest albums without feeling the need to explain is progress in itself.
A year after the release of “Gemini Rights,” Lacy is gearing up for the next installment in his major-label debut, and while the stakes are high, he doesn’t feel the pressure.
“I feel liberated,” he says, arms wide with a relaxed smile. “All the other stuff happened. I hit No. 1. I got the Grammy. I performed at the Grammys — Beyoncé stood up. What more could I ask for?” He’s also not attempting to replicate another “Bad Habit” for his third album. “I’m creating something entirely new” is all he discloses. “It’s still me, but… it’s way different.”
The Internet will eventually reunite for another album, but there’s no rush — and no envy from the other members regarding Lacy’s skyrocketing fame.
“It’s been wonderful to witness someone take the foundation we built together and achieve the highest level of success,” Syd says. “I think subconsciously, I desired it to unfold this way. I wanted someone else to fulfill their potential, to grant me permission to do the same.”
Lacy is content with his “passive fame,” as he describes it: the kind that doesn’t yet necessitate security but triggers hushed conversations on the streets. To safeguard his privacy, he has developed a habit of distorting his appearance, concealing his face during performances and obscuring it on the cover of “Gemini Rights.”
“I didn’t place my face directly on the cover because I’m somewhat apprehensive about what that might lead to,” he elucidates. “There are still people I meet, and they have no idea it’s me until I say my name. I like that.”
Lacy has a growing interest in acting, having tested the waters with a movie audition prompted by a casting agent’s request for a self-taped tryout. However, he admits to being “scared” of the kind of attention that comes with being on-screen. “I can go No. 1 and be on the radio and still go hang out,” he points out. “If you go No. 1 on Netflix, you can’t do nothing! Movie star fame is way different.”
Nevertheless, for an artist who has either relished or avoided the limelight for almost a decade, Lacy is gradually warming up to a new level of celebrity.
“I don’t yearn to be super famous, but I also try not to be afraid of that,” he says. Lacy pauses, leaning back in his chair to gaze up at the dozens of hotel windows above him, sparkling in the light like eyes or camera lenses. “If that’s where things want to go.”