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album review: apollo xxi

Singer, songwriter and producer Steve Lacy has released his first full-length album Apollo XXI. The 21-year-old musician has an impressive track record from having production and writing credits on Kendrick Lamar’s PRIDE. that featured on his Grammy award-winning album DAMN to being one of the first featured artists on Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The Compton native released his first EP called Steve Lacy’s Demo in 2017, which contains alternative soul-driven songs like “Dark Red” and “Some.” Lacy broke music production norms with this EP by recording every song on his iPhone. The style was so shocking to the music world that WIRED documented his groundbreaking new age music making process.

In the meantime since going on tour with The Internet, the neo-soul band he joined in 2015 that launches his career, he has been writing Apollo XXI. The album has its highs and lows, but foremost it indicates his personal growth as an artist while also signifying how much more he has to progress.

Apollo XXI has some eclectic production techniques that are worth noting, but it lacks a professional sound expected from his first full album. Regardless, each song is enjoyable and filled with innovative production choices and hooks that are trademarks of the Steve Lacy sound.

The starting song “Only If,” acts as an ode to Lacy’s past anxieties as he sings: “if I could travel through time, I’d think I would tell myself from the past ‘you’ll be fine’.” The lyrics filled with lessons from coming of age are backed by an eclectic instrumental consisting of a Sitar and a hip-hop beat pad.

Personally, “Only If” is one of my favorite songs because it sets the tone for the whole album: self-understanding and self-acceptance, which leads into “Like Me.”

The song is Lacy’s coming out story wrapped in four songs over ten minutes. He asks the listeners if they’ve ever been in a situation where they must hide who they are from their loved ones. Ironically the singer said in an interview with i-D, “I don’t like to look at [my sexuality] as a big part. Um, and I think, who we’re fucking, shouldn’t matter in the world. It’s kind of silly to me.”

Regardless of his statement on being openly bisexual, he expresses the fears of losing friends, family and disappointing others by not fitting the status quo. Daisy Hamel-Buffa from the Los Angeles band DAISY, features on the song and talks about her similar fears and worries of not fitting in and being embraced by her community. Overall, the song takes listeners on a journey that is worth partaking on as it varies in vibes. It sways from a retro love ballad to a deep silence the evolves into a crisp acoustic glockenspiel vibrating in the background while Lacy serenades the audience with his raspy falsetto voice.

“Playground” takes a groovy turn with its rhythmic guitar riffs and crisp slap bass that can be found on a Parliament song. It’s a tune dedicated to the game of love and it has the songwriting credentials of Soul and R&B legend Jesse Boykins III. Lacy talks about his love escapades by saying, “remember all the days you left me by the phone. You love to hesitate, now you are the second place.” The song ends on a bridge that has Lacy belting a heavenly falsetto riff found in any legendary 1970s funk band.

“Basement Jack” greets the listener with a retro synth pad similar to one that would be used in a typical Tame Impala song. He is asking his lover to meet him halfway in their intense love affair when he says “love me like your doja, ride me like your lover. Touch me ’round my wasteland, I’ve been out the basement.” He is “out of the basement” meaning he is out and proud about his love and he wants to furthermore be of a helping hand in the song “Guide.”

The song describes the breakthrough of getting over a relationship and moving on to another lover. The funky riff starts out with a bassline that could only be found only in a Jamiroquai song, one of Lacy’s key influences. The on-beat rhythm brings back a disco heaven sound and Lacy amps up the intensity with his voice.

The album leads into another love ballad called “Lay Me Down.” It pacifies the listener with its swing tempo and the complimentary chorus of Lacy’s falsetto voice layered on top of itself.  The guitar patch is reminiscent a patch that Mac Demarco uses throughout his entire discography, which gives it even more of an alternative funk feel that attracts listeners from different backgrounds.

Lacy’s second queer love song in the album “Hate CD” is the LGBT love anthem that queer neo-soul and R&B lovers can dance to. “I yearn for his affection cause I’m addicted to this drug,” Lacy sings as he is describing the intensity of the love he has for this boy. The guitar riffs are reminiscent of a 70’s wah sounding filter, which ingeniously coincides with the album’s theme of self-discovery. Lacy is a multifaceted queer artist who writes songs that would typically not be heard in a gay bar but nevertheless represents the diversity of queer artists. “Let me live inside your car,” could well be the connecting lyrics between “Hate CD” and “In Lust We Trust.” Another song about love and its power, the repeatedly used alternative sounding guitar pedals give it a flare that explains why the singer has been embraced by artists from multiple genres.

On the other hand,“Love 2 Fast” represents the opposite side of love. Lacy’s heartache is apparent when he says “I swear there’s something in the wind outside today and it ain’t cool… Fuck, why is falling in love so hard?” The instrumental matches the melancholy feel as the pitch is toned down to create a hopeless mood that can only be experienced when someone faces heartbreak.

“Amandla’s Interlude” adds a positive and unprecedented twist to the album. Starting out with a conversation between Lacy and his friend and actress Amandla Stenberg about how easy it was for them to write a song, it eventually delves into a duet between a violin and a guitar that sounds like a classical Spanish ballad. The interlude is the only song on the album that solely has acoustic instruments playing.

It’s a smooth ballad that exemplifies Lacy’s technical skills as a musician that he typically does not show behind the computer screen when producing songs. The acoustic sounds act as a fresh change of pace that is a perfect precursor for the album’s hit single, “N Side.”

A killer drum beat and a catchy guitar riff earn this song rightful title of being the hit single. The rhythm of the guitar and bass perfectly match the robotic beat pad making the perfect funky love song to move to. The single is about a love relationship between Lacy and a girl. “Inside, inside, tell me, is it inside,” is a double entendre chorus because Lacy is making a sexual reference while also asking if the girl has any feelings for him. The melody is even more catchy as his vocals echo his guitar riff.

Finally, the “Outro Freestyle/4ever” is quite frankly a random flex. Lacy brags about being on top of his game in every aspect of life. He said, “Rolex on a wrist, watch. Bitch, I am Chris Rock… I should have a show on Netflix that they friends watch. Copped the deal and I went reckless. I’m a big boss like I’m Rick Ross.” The song then takes another turn where a gospel choir repeatedly sings “forever” after Lacy says “please take the wheel forever.” The chorus echoes in the distance ending on an eerie unexpected feeling, which leaves the listener in complete confusion.

Throughout the album’s themes of self-discovery, fear, love, addiction and self-acceptance, Lacy makes his point clear that he is still a 21-year-old coming of age and will continually face new challenges.

The production while eclectic and innovative at times does not make up for the fact that the whole album still sounds like a demo that needs more work. Every chorus and melody was catchy, but there’s a level of mastery that Lacy has yet to reach. Even the strong song such as “N Side” and “In Lust We Trust” could be considered weak songwriting because there is a lack of variety in structure. They’re merely repetitive verses and choruses that sound like there’s a missing part to the song.

And even with the criticisms, I am excited to see what the singer-songwriter will accomplish in the near future. Apollo XXI symbolizes the growth and progress of the one they call Steve Lacy.

Take a listen below:

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