Monday, 27 May 2024

Steve Lacy

A nineteen-year-old genius on the brink of superstardom, if he wants it

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In the mainstream musical imagination, Compton – a city just south of Los Angeles – looms large as the tough-as-nails birthplace of Dr. Dre and gangster rap as portrayed in movies such as ‘Straight Outta Compton’. But, of course, like most iconic places, it is more complex than the pop cultural depictions which strain to define it. It is a town as varied as any other, and a place with pretty, palm tree-lined streets and cute one-storey houses not so far from the beach. It is also the home of Steve Lacy, a tremendously promising 19-year-old musician who performs both solo and with the beloved R&B group the Internet.

From Fantastic Man n° 28 — 2018
Portraits and collages by SAMUEL HODGE
Styling by CHLOE ROSE

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Steve lives with his mum, Valarie, and sister, Asia, on a quiet middle-class corner in the home he grew up in that his grandparents once owned, sleeping on the same single bed that he’s had since he was ten and which, for the past few years, has become a makeshift studio for recording his soulful and intelligent records. Lacy, sitting cross-legged on the bed, sneakers and guitars strewn all over the floor, lifts his shirt to show me the name of his hometown tattooed on his chest and says that, though his recent success allows him the money to move out of his mum’s house, he expects to not stray too far, staying right here in the city that has been his family’s base for generations.


Lacy is the type of genius who doesn’t need much to express his talents: it’s now legend that he was about 16 when he started working with The Internet and recorded much of his early output on his iPhone, not a professional setup. He was still in high school when he was nominated for a Grammy for his first album with the band, ‘Ego Death’. “At graduation, all these kids had honour badges on, and I wore a Grammy nomination medallion.” The tiny single bed – which has a Winnie the Pooh fleece blanket on it – is where he sat to create ‘Steve Lacy’s Demo’, his 2017 solo debut EP. It is a confident collection of what would best be called “old soul” music – young in its casual, conversational song writing, but timeless in mood and attitude, with the warmth and charisma of decades-old Stevie Wonder and Prince paired with youthfully insecure lyrics about the kind of awkward dating that any millennial exhausted of Tinder can relate to. “I have witnessed some great musical pioneers over the years, but who else do you know who has been Grammy-nominated for producing an album on their iPhone?” says Nile Rodgers – the legendary guitarist from Chic and producer for Diana Ross – who invited Lacy to give a lecture on technology and music at the 2017 TEDxTeen conference in New York City, which featured prodigal talent. “He is innovation personified.”


Rodgers is not the only deity to think highly of him. Lacy was enlisted to produce a song called ‘PRIDE.’ for fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album ‘DAMN.’, the winner of this year’s Grammy for best rap album. How that came to be is how most of Lacy’s blessings have come about: from his skill, of course, but also, frankly, from his cockiness, which is either born from the adolescent gift of not yet being jaded out of feeling immortal or a wise-beyond-his-years self-assurance that most people in their forties would dream to possess. In other words, it’s hard to tell if Lacy is a force because of how appropriately unseasoned or preternaturally mature – or both – he is for his age. He had been invited to the studio by Lamar’s long-time collaborator DJ Dahi and, in a room of talent that would intimidate even the most experienced, saw an opportunity and took it, blasting one of his productions in a rare quiet lull. Lamar, the most lauded rapper of his generation, turned to him and told him to take his phone number, and ‘PRIDE.’ came soon after. “I know my place is to make music,” Lacy says, with a sense of destiny. “My first year out of high school I had a feature on Kendrick – that tells you your place in life.”

In our time together on a warm February California day, Lacy vacillates between being braggadociously grown and sweetly goofy. He is a Gemini, which might contribute to this duality. Even his outfit is half and half – on top he is wearing a smart, vintage, knit T-shirt that is a little too small for him and creeps up past his red Calvin Klein underwear when he lifts his arms, revealing tattoos, but on bottom he is wearing a pair of satin Gucci sport shorts that are the luxury version of the kind of basketball wear that is the uniform of kids all over America. He drives his black Kia – the same car he’s had since high school, now littered with half-drunk water bottles, a balled-up Stella McCartney sweater and Stereolab CDs – a bit spasmodically, pulling U-turns on busy LA streets when he has confused the directions, but assures me he’s not “some crazy teen driver,” just a bit of a space cadet. We go to a music supply shop so that he can splurge on a $2,000 keyboard, but he’s only got the starter debit card he’s had since high school, which has a $400 limit on what he can spend, so we have to drive to his bank to manually withdraw funds and then fly back to Guitar Center, where he pays for the equipment in cash.

There is also a push and pull between being an artist in the spotlight and a producer behind the scenes. “He has what it takes to be a huge, superstar singer. For the most part, I think he does want that,” says Syd, the charismatic R&B vocalist and songwriter who fronts the Internet. “But then sometimes he’ll say otherwise, so I don’t really know.” Lacy first rose to prominence behind Syd in the background of the Internet’s album ‘Ego Death’, but when his solo EP came out in 2017, it thrust him to the centre of underground music as a powerful new star: teen-idol handsome, thrift-store stylish and, most of all, enthrallingly talented, able to make music so catchy and enjoyable with just his iPhone that teams of professional songwriters working day in and day out would love to create. The standout on ‘Demo’ is ‘Dark Red’, a twangy, paranoid song in which Lacy sings about dreading that his girlfriend is about to dump him. The song is somehow both unusual and familiar. “At this point, Steve Lacy is a genre in itself,” says the rapper Goldlink, who Lacy has produced for. The melodies are strange but addictive, the hook is catchy but menacing, and layers and layers of vocal harmonies that Lacy made from recordings of his own voice are both spectral and tenderly nostalgic of something you might hear on old Four Tops records. “I want my music to be hypnotic, in the sense of escapism. You’re totally caught in the groove, present in the moment,” he says.

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Steve enjoys the colourful flora in Sydney’s botanical gardens.

Lately, he says he’d like to keep his face out of the limelight and concentrate on producing, as he has for the EP ‘Crush’ by new R&B singer Ravyn Lenae, which came out in February. But in our conversations, he can’t seem to commit to that entirely, and as quickly as he says he’s happy to be in the shadows, he’ll start speaking with an almost Kanye West-level of confidence about his prospects for celebrity. His mother, a church-going Christian, uses phrases taken from the Bible (Luke 1:28) to describe him. “He’s ‘greatly blessed’ and ‘highly favoured,’” she says.

Lacy wears a beaded bracelet on his wrist that a fan threw to him on stage that reads Rockstar Steve, a reminder, perhaps, of big things that seem promised to him. “‘Rockstar Steve’ is my character right now: I do what I want,” he says. “I’m a legend already. I am striving to be the best. My music is something you’ve never heard before. Why would I do this to get second place?”


Lacy was born in 1998. His mother, Valarie, was 32 and already had two daughters from a previous marriage; his father was from the Philippines (“I have siblings there that I’ve never met,” Lacy says). Valarie, a nurse, was working at a hospital and met his father, a handyman, while he was doing a job there. They were married and had Steve and his sister, but Lacy’s dad wasn’t around much and not able to provide for his family. “I don’t remember much of him living here,” he says. “He would come around when he had money, so every time, it would be the same thing: he would pick us up from school and give us $10 to go get food.” His father died of lung cancer when he was ten. “I saw him in his last days in the hospital,” Steve says. “I just wish I knew more about him.” Valarie supported the family, and she was dead set on making sure her children got a good education and stayed out of trouble. “Education to me is freedom,” she says. She enrolled Steve in a costly private Catholic school and brought him to church on Sundays.

There were rough times in Compton, and Lacy remembers his mother telling the whole family to duck after she heard gunshots in the street. But Valarie also made the home a magic place to grow up. She is creative herself and encouraged her kids to try anything artistic that they wanted, even letting them graffiti the walls of the house. (It is clear from meeting her once that she is a uniquely kind and generous person, and if Lacy is indeed a prodigy, it is in no small part because of this special woman. She offers me something to eat or drink at least three times in one afternoon, and though I refuse, she shoves a candy cane in my hand as I am saying goodbye to make sure I leave with something.) “I raised them to feel comfortable in their own skin,” she says. “I used to say to them: ‘If you like it, I love it.’” She played classical music around the house while pregnant because a friend had told her it would help the child’s development, and she knew her son liked music from the time he was nine months old: in the car, when she’d turn off the radio, he’d cry, only stopping when she’d turn it back on. She played piano and sang gospel at church, and when Lacy expressed interest in a guitar after hours of playing the ‘Guitar Hero’ video game, she made sure he got his hands on one. “I was obsessed with the sound and the tone,” he says. By high school, she found a school that had a strong music programme and enrolled him, pushing him to join jazz band, which is where he first began to play seriously.

In jazz band, Steve met keyboardist Jameel Bruner, an older kid who recognised talent in him. They began to jam together outside school, and Lacy started to make his own beats using computer programs and a guitar when he was about 15. Bruner went on to join the Internet and brought Lacy along to writing sessions. “When I first met him, he was really shy and quiet,” says Matt Martin, a producer in the Internet known as Matt Martians. “One day, our bass player wasn’t at the studio and Steve was the only one there and I asked him to help me out on a song – and he killed it. And then he played me his other music. The first thing I noticed was the chord changes – they had a lot of adolescence and a lot of maturity. The fact that he didn’t know he was that good yet was alarming to me.” Lacy describes his particular style of music as “plaid”: different colours meshing together and making something beautiful.

Lacy went on to co-produce more than half the album. “I’d have to be reminded sometimes that he was just a kid, like when he was always falling asleep in the studio,” Martin says. But Lacy, kid or not, is so capable that when it came time to do his solo work, Martin knew he was able to create the entire EP on his own without assistance. “I told him: ‘You don’t need anybody,’” Martin says. “He can do it himself. No one can come whisper in his ear and tell him they can be better.” When ‘Ego Death’ was nominated for a Grammy, the high school-aged Lacy wore an iridescent green suit on the red carpet and brought Valarie as his date. She wore a beautiful, mirrored column dress that she says someone described as a “disco ball” and fanned out when she saw rapper Common in person. She had been still hoping that maybe Steve would go to college after high school, but once the award nod came in, she knew music was the path. “I was, like, ‘I guess there will be no college for Steve!’” she says.


By the time he got round to finishing up his solo EP last year, big changes were also happening in his personal and romantic life. He dated girls but had nursed same-sex attractions for years. As a faithful Christian, he thought it was a sin. “I definitely repressed it,” he says. “It felt wrong.” On New Year’s Eve last year, as the clock turned to 2017, fate came calling. A good male friend of his kissed him, but Lacy told him to back up. Then the roles reversed: Lacy made a move on his friend, but his friend shut down and said no – a back and forth that inspired a song on his EP called ‘Haterlovin’.

“It left me searching. I was depressed,” he says. He began to use a phone app to go on dates with boys and found himself in a relationship with one last year. He identifies as bisexual but is enjoying exploring the same-sex side of attractions at the moment. The first relationship didn’t last, but he is in a new one now. The time Lacy and I spend together happens to be the day after Valentine’s, and a vase of red and coral flowers stands in the corner of his room, a gift from his boyfriend. He says they spent the whole day saying “I love you” to each other. He told his mum recently that he is bisexual, and she took it well, though he says she worries – like so many mothers do – that his life will be harder.

There have already been challenges. Last summer, he was answering questions from fans on his Tumblr when he casually admitted that he was bisexual, while also saying he did not date other black men. The internet erupted in think pieces about why that admission was racially problematic, but Lacy stood by his truth, writing a defence on Tumblr: “as much as you or whoever thinks this sounds like bs, it’s from a real place. I’m a nigga from compton, I don’t dislike black people, I prefer to live here and be around poc [people of colour] bc I love black people, I’m just not attracted to black boys. that is it. I still love them and want them to do well in life, we just won’t date. sorry.” He continues to believe he said nothing wrong. “I was hurt. They didn’t want to understand my case. They just wanted a target, acting like I’m an anti-black coon. I’m not walking around with a KKK hood,” he says. “But it made me realise I do have people looking at me now. It taught me that not everyone is entitled to know me.” He has since quit Twitter and has been more careful about letting people into his life.

FANTASTIC MAN - Steve’s white ribbed cotton vest is by BONDS, his red and blue polyester shorts are by FILA, his dungarees are by LEVI’S, his socks are by UNIQLO and his trainers are by VANS.

This incident could be why he has become more tentative about the prospects of celebrity. “I want the success but not the things that come with it. On Twitter, you see famous people getting bashed all the time,” he says. And yet when I ask him whose career he could imagine emulating, maybe Frank Ocean’s, who has preserved a bit of mystery about his personal life, Lacy says that he adores Pharrell and especially Prince (“I think out of all the artists, I relate to him a lot in the sense that he was a Gemini, produced everything, played guitar”), but that he has no need for heroes. “I don’t want to be boxed in. I don’t put anyone on a pedestal – I’m on the same level as all these motherfuckers,” he says. “I’m good at making songs.”


Lacy has tattooed on his arm an image of an astronaut framed by the words “Trust me I’m gone.” “It’s, like, ‘Trust me, I’m not in your world, I’m gone,’” he says. I ask him if he feels like an alien sometimes. “Kind of. Like, just not on earth,” he says. “People on earth are worried about other things; I just want to make music.” He says that because he grew up in Compton, people expected his music to sound a specific way. “When you tell your teacher in high school that you make music, they are, like, ‘You rap?’” he says. “I’m not a gangster rapper; I’m a fucking rock star.” He says, too, that he always felt more comfortable around older people than kids his own age. “Yeah, you guys are lost,” he says of his peers. “Sometimes the younger ones who are open to hear whatever the fuck I’m saying will get me to talk, but if you don’t, if you are small talking, I will just run from you.”

Still, spending a day with him, you are reminded sporadically that he’s closer in age to adolescence than he is to adulthood. He had been in Australia and Asia for a few weeks before our time together, and he says he came home to find that his mum had cleaned his room. He might say he’s from outer space, but right here on this planet, he is on a family GPS programme through his cell phone that allows his mum to see where he is at all times. When I ask him if he drinks a lot, he points out that he is not of age to consume alcohol yet. In his room, there is a rubber-ducky trash can across from the bed and stickers in the shapes of sharks and other animals stuck onto his dresser. Indeed, he admits that for all of his confidence, some of it is just an act, the puffed-up chutzpah required for being 19 and standing out on a stage as kids your own age throw homemade bracelets at your feet – he is an idol when most people are still idolising others. “I have to trick myself into being it,” he says. “It’s not factual, it’s just how you feel about yourself. Will the world think that? Probably not. I don’t care. You’re supposed to feel like you’re the fucking best.”


Grooming by Claire Thomson at Company 1. Retouching by Vasili Vasileiadis.