Did anyone else feel the need to completely reinvent themselves during quarantine? Maybe you were struck with the urge to dye your hair blue, take up skateboarding or even try a hand at baking (during that weird period in April when everyone started making sourdough)?
For 23-year-old musician Omar Apollo, the past few months in isolation have meant rewriting an entire album.
The Indiana native, now residing in Los Angeles, had high hopes for a full project release and tour in the upcoming year, but, unsurprisingly, the pandemic threw a wrench in these plans. But instead of waiting for the indeterminate return of live musical performances, Apollo decided to scrap much of the material from his forthcoming album and put out a project more fitting of the circumstances. The final product, Apolonio, is a glossy and confident mini-album exploring adolescent struggles in middle America, sexuality and rising stardom.
Despite the album’s run time of only 26 minutes, Apolonio manages to cover considerable ground in terms of style. On tracks like “I’m Amazing” and “Kamikaze,” Apollo plays around with his familiar laid-back pop sound, seen previously on past EPs Friends (2019) and Stereo (2018). “I’m Amazing” instantly pops as an opener thanks to bubbly production from Michael Uzowuru and Blake Slatkin, producers who’ve collectively worked with artists like Frank Ocean, Donald Glover and Gracie Abrams.
On “Stayback” and “Hey Boy,” Apollo delivers sultry funk and R&B, with a seductive feature from Colombian American songstress Kali Uchis on the latter. Apollo also digs into his Chicano roots on the Spanish corrido track “Dos Uno Nueve (219),” paying homage to the style of narrative ballad popular among traditional Mexican communities. The song alludes to Apollo’s hometown area code, recounting instances of discrimination faced while growing up in the predominatly-white suburbs of Hobart, Indiana. As the child of two immigrants from Guadalajara, Apollo has shared in previous interviews the very real struggles of food insecurity and poverty he faced throughout his upbringing. Now, as he sings on “Dos Uno Nueve (219),” “we have plenty to eat.” It’s a tale of redemption, one in which Apollo simultaneously celebrates his roots and lets go of the toxicity of the past.
Between honeyed vocals and groove-worthy guitar riffs, Apollo touches on another deeply personal theme: his much-speculated-about sexuality. Though never declared outright on the project, tracks like “Bi Fren” paint a picture of stifled small town romances and heartbreak. Apollo professes, “I still like him, I still like him / I used to drive around your block without no license,” as if his swirling thoughts and desires chase him around the neighborhood in circles. Apollo tends to keep the subject of his sexuality close to the vest in interviews, but he’s dropped some not-so-subtle hints on previous works like the 2017 track “Beauty Boy.” He sings longingly, “I want to say I love him / I want to say I love him / You take all my love / I’m afraid I can’t love no one again.” It seems that since then, Apollo has broken out of his shell of discretion, bringing the topic to the forefront of the “Stayback” music video released in early August. Directed by friend Aidan Cullen, the video follows Apollo as he navigates a bustling night out. Throughout the video, he exchanges furtive glances with a presumed male love interest who’s seated at a table with his girlfriend. The two steal tense glances from across the party, until Apollo finally stumbles defeatedly into an empty motel room to shelter from his rejection. As the music fades away, our mystery man finally appears in the doorway before the credits roll. Beneath the bright visuals and rich bassline, the “Stayback” video proves Apollo’s yearning remains unabated, even if he’s grown more comfortable expressing his identity to the world.
In many ways, Apollo has graduated from his days of DIY bedroom pop. Not only does Apolonio stand as his most genre-bending work to date, but it marks a clear transition from energetic ammatuer to increasingly established musician. While Apollo’s previous EPs were devoid of any features, Apolonio pulls the collaborative efforts of artists like Albert Hammond Jr. of The Strokes, who provides guitar and songwriting on the track “Useless,” and rising Australian singer-songwriter Ruel, who lends his smooth vocals on “Want U Around.” Apollo himself has blossomed vocally since his last project, perfecting the trademark falsetto that gives his music its irresistible charm à la Prince. Apolonio may be compact in structure, but it’s a testament to artistic growth and experimentation.
The album isn’t a complete departure from the glittering pop of Apollo’s past, but it’s certainly his most dynamic project yet. There’s a shift in narrative on Apolonio, and the artist no longer rests on the laurels of charming and catchy tunes. Instead, we see a vulnerable Apollo, who’s managed to both mature musically and maintain the same vibrancy that keeps his fans coming back.
Look out for Apollo’s recorded performance and concert documentary from Paisley Park on Oct. 27.