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The 21st birthday is a rite of passage for most American kids. It’s the moment they cross the channel into legal adulthood. You can drink now. Rent a car. Adopt a child. In some states, purchase weed. The American cultural canon demands an extravagant celebration: a shot of tequila at midnight, seven more before last call. Not for Steve Lacy, though. The musician forgot about his 21st birthday.

“I always go to Six Flags but I forgot to send out invites to people so it was only like three people,” he tells me, before adding, characteristically deadpan: “That was kind of sad.”

Maybe it’s easy to overlook your birthday when you’re busy celebrating your debut solo album. The day after he turned 21, Lacy released the fittingly titled Apollo XXI. The record’s release took place in the aeronautical setting of Compton Municipal Airport, where he was embraced like a homecoming king by the community in which he grew up. The follow-up to his widely-loved 2017 EP, Steve Lacy’s Demo, Apollo XXI is the strongest herald yet of his star potential as a solo artist – although there have been plenty of signs before now.

By the time he’d turned 17, Lacy, a proficient guitarist and bassist, had already earned a Grammy nomination for his work executive producing Ego Death, the third studio album from The Internet. By the time he turned 19, he’d earned production credits on projects by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Denzel Curry and GoldLink. He’s only gotten busier since then. Last year he produced Crush, the delightful EP by R&B singer Ravyn Lenae, and released Hive Mind with The Internet. The latter is a masterful funk-slash-R&B album that is now a mainstay on Spotify hook-up playlists. After that, he went on an international tour. When he returned home, he took a mere month and a half to write, record and produce Apollo XXI. “That month is where I just kind of pumped everything. It happened really fast,” he remembers.

The nebulous, free-ranging sound of Apollo XXI is hard to categorise. There are strong elements of funk, R&B and hip-hop – all categories unified by black music genealogy – but they’re shot through a lo-fi pop prism and it’s Lacy’s vocals that cut through the most. They evoke remarkable unbotheredness; extreme chill even in the throes of intense passion. It’s a cool-headed confidence that he radiates in person as well as on his records, a kind of self-possession that emits so powerfully you could feel it even if he was standing silently in the back of a crowded room (he usually is).

One publication even called Apollo XXI “the future of sex”, which seems like the most appropriate appellation for his low-key coming-of-age pop. In Like Me, the album’s second track, he divulges more about his private life than he’s willing to do in most interviews. “I only feel energy, I see no gender/ When I talk ’bout fish, I wanna catch you, I’m a fisher,” he sings on the track. “Now they debate on who I like, they wanna see a list of/ Girls and boys out here so they can see if I’m official.”

© Sasha Samsonova

Lacy, himself, refuses to indulge in the subject of his sexuality outside of his music when pressed. “There are so many journalists or people that just want to paint a certain picture and box you, so [artists] are afraid to say certain words because we’re afraid that the journalist is going to say, ‘Oh, this is that,’” he says, choosing his words carefully. “So we speak very vaguely because we’ve been through that shit.”

It’s true that he’s been notoriously skittish around the press and picky about his interviews, which makes sense, because he’s been doing them since he turned 17. Because of that, his personal and professional history has been well-documented: Lacy was born and raised in Compton, California, mostly by his mother. He has four sisters – three older, one younger – who exposed him to “Tracy Chapman, Musiq Soulchild and… John Mayer.”

“John Mayer’s great,” I interrupt.

“I know,” he responds. “But if you knew my big sister, you’d be like, ‘You’re listening to John Mayer?’ That was actually a fluid time in music, though. My sister is kind of hood, you know what I mean? They were listening to all types of music all night on MTV. Those songs were hits.”

“I was battling trying to be an artsy boy while being a cool teenager”

Those were his first music memories, and you can see how this free-roaming diet of music would inform his own genre-agnostic approach. His older sister bumping Your Body Is a Wonderland while he memorised the gospel songs he learned to sing in church. And then there’s what he calls “drinking music” – party stuff like Too $hort, that he listened to with his middle school friends. “That’s when I was still kind of trendy,” he says, sheepishly. “I wasn’t as artsy then. I was battling trying to be an artsy boy while being a cool teenager.” His mother, eager to encourage his interest in music, enrolled him in the Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles – HART’s, for short – which is located on the campus of Narbonne High School. In the 9th grade, he met Jameel Bruner, a musician who played the keys for a jazz band. Jameel, now known as Kintaro, was older than Lacy, and at the time, a member of The Internet.

“I looked up to Jameel because he was so skilful [at] his craft,” remembers Lacy. He tells me about how Bruner began bringing him along to studio sessions with the band. Slowly he became part of the makeup. “Jameel had his laptop and he was making beats, showing me how to do it. I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can do that.’ I figured it out and got people to trust me to stretch my wings.”

The next thing he knew, he was picking up a guitar, recording along with them. In 2013, when he was still in high school, Lacy began production on what would become The Internet’s third studio album Ego Death. Crucially, he did most of his production on an iPhone, using a mobile audio interface called iRig, providing a USP that made him stand out.

When the album was released in 2016, it was nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammys. Inevitably, Lacy found himself an in-demand producer, going on to work with The Internet bandmate Syd on Fin, producing tracks for Twenty88, Denzel Curry, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar (he produced Pride for Kendrick’s DAMN. LP). Suddenly he was doing press interviews and heading out on tour. He went on to be named a Tech Visionary by Wired Magazine and one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential Teens. Lacy had made it, and he hadn’t even graduated high school.

The first thing he bought with his paycheck was a guitar. “The Rickenbacker 330 – I call it my broke Christmas,” he laughs. “As a high school kid, you get $3,500 and think, ‘I’m rich!’” He revels in the memory: “A couple of thousand dollars to a kid who never, ever had that much money in his hand, I was going berserk,” he remembers. “I felt so generous and I was treating everyone, buying stupid amounts of weed. That’s when I was a stoner,” he says, explaining the excess was short-lived. “I don’t smoke anymore. Coffee fiend.” He gestures towards the coffee cup in his hand.

Every day since graduating high school, he’s been a working musician. So it’s understandable why, when he turned 21, all he wanted to do was ride some coasters at the theme park. “I’m a fucking grump,” he says, by way of explanation. “I’m the simplest 21-year-old, I just want to hang out with my friends, find cool music to listen to, read cool books. I didn’t envision myself going to a club and getting blacked-out drunk. I just didn’t see it, you know what I mean?”

© Sasha Samsonova

His family thinks he spends his time partying – on a cruise or at the beach, with his collar popped. But, no, he insists, he’s at home. Alone. He just moved out of his mom’s house in Compton two months ago. “There would be times where I would get home [to my mom’s house] from a long strenuous tour and I just want no noise, no nothing,” he says. “I just want to sit in my room, but it would be too hectic. My sister would have her friends here, and I would be like, man I don’t feel like none of this.”

So he moved to a neighbourhood tucked away in the Santa Monica mountains, far from the chaos of city life. “I have to Uber my friends out to come see me,” he admits. “Isn’t that sad? I want company, and they’re like, ‘We’re not driving to Topanga!’”

When he does go out, it’s to eat at his favourite vegan spot in West Hollywood, or to shop for clothes at, like, Uniqlo. He mentions Uniqlo twice over the course of our interview, so it feels important to mention – but only because Lacy loves fashion. A lot. He wishes more people would ask him about fashion. On Instagram, he documents himself in Dries Van Noten jackets, Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton (when Abloh took over as the French fashion house’s menswear art director, he tapped Lacy to walk in his first show), and Carhartt tees (he modelled for the brand once, too, in 2018). Besides that Rickenbacker, the other thing he bought with his first paycheck was a Stella McCartney sweater. On tour, his personal style was characterised by a series of bold Margiela heels. The notoriously soft-spoken artist expresses himself loudly with clothing – high, low, all of it.

“Some nights, I feel like Uniqlo. This is Balenciaga, I just bought it,” he says, pointing to the piece he’s wearing. “I don’t like designer that has its logo or name on it.” At the photo shoot, he exercises control over the outfit options. He mulls over a pair of shoes. Carefully considers a patchwork kilt by a brand called Jetpack. He doesn’t like ceding control to stylists. “I might wear what they want, but it’s very collaborative,” he says.

The stylist present at this shoot is his friend, and he navigates the clothing rack with quiet confidence, selecting shoes and accessories for himself, turning down pieces he doesn’t like, eyeing each one with a neutral gaze. One of his final selections is a matching patchwork jacket and kilt combination.

He doesn’t say it to me, but you can see that he likes to keep his friends close. The other person present at this shoot, Chelsea, is the stylist’s assistant. With the familiarity of a biological sister, she grabs his phone and begins to order Thai takeout for the group. She also threw him a surprise birthday party when he forgot about his own. She takes him out to warehouse parties on the edge of the city, where the tempo is engineered to move your body. But he doesn’t last long.

© Sasha Samsonova

“You know when you’re out and… the wall is right there,” he says. “You feel it.”

I know where the wall is, I say. The exact moment you realise you need to go home. The exact moment being out isn’t fun anymore. When you’re young and a little stupid, you ignore the wall, and you stay at the party, and you make regrettable decisions. In Los Angeles, where you might find yourself partying alongside people who can accurately recall the Clinton years, it takes a long time to figure out where the wall is. You want to show up, show out. But Lacy has grown up fast, and well. At just 21, he has the rest of his career ahead of him, with no reason to rush. He’s content to set his own pace, do things his way.

“I remember when I would just stay out past [the wall],” he says, adjusting his tone. “But now it’s like… I feel the wall, I’m going to go.”

Photography: Sasha Samsonova
Styling: Sofia Benito & Chelsea Gaspard
Clothing: c/o The Bearded Beagle and JetPack Homme

Apollo XXI is out now on 3qtr