Steve Lacy’s debut album Apollo XXI presents itself after his prolific entry into the music scene. From building his early career on GarageBand to serving as lead guitarist of R&B band The Internet, he’s left a definitive and impressive imprint on the industry, albeit an invisible one. Before the age of 20, he’s managed to swing gigs producing tracks with some of the biggest acts in the game, from Tyler, the Creator to Kendrick Lamar. He pulled off all these accomplishments before the age of 21. Yet in spite of his EP, Grammy nomination and a few lead tracks on Hive Mind, Steve Lacy hasn’t allowed himself much space in the limelight.
Apollo XXI is where a lot of this changes. From Lacy’s Instagram announcement in bright-orange advertisements, his recent work with Vampire Weekend and his collaborators promoting him all over Twitter, there’s been obvious intention to gain Lacy some attention long before the album’s release. Lacy’s been making music for a while now, but he’s a mere newbie to the audiences of his peers.
It’s for this reason that Lacy releases this album from the thematic perspective you’d expect of a 21-year-old. He shoots for the stars with Apollo XXI, not sparing a single detail. He traverses with ease across topics from his burgeoning understanding of his bisexuality on “Like Me” to his playful descriptions of love on “Playground.” He carries this range in a consistent, emotional honesty and frankness, unafraid to declare, “I only feel energy, I see no gender, how many out there just like me?”
That being said, the album’s nothing groundbreaking on Lacy’s part. The production’s a lot neater this time around, certainly; he ventures into more complex realms, from the three-part beat switch-ups that stitch up nine-minute-long “Like Me” to the funkier variedness on smooth tracks like “Hate CD.” However, sonically speaking, this albums sticks in the same vein Lacy has followed in all previous projects. The same dreamy, plucking guitar makes inevitable appearance in the more upbeat, summery hits on this project, as does the funky tempo we’ve seen in past works.
This isn’t to suggest Lacy’s work is monotonous; Rather, it’s his efforts veering more toward improving the artistry he’s already set on his radar. After all, the cuts are a lot crisper this time around than they were on Steve Lacy’s Demo in 2017. This bodes well for the album as the smooth, soulful production carries the airy, carefree lyrics of the album. He’s a lot less apprehensive than he was on former efforts, more willing to announce his presence and explore his uncertainty than run from them. And perhaps this is Apollo XXI’s ultimate strength. Rather than taking a different route, he perfects the road he’s already on with a whole slew of new tricks up his sleeve — not a bad move for someone who’s still relatively new to the public eye.
Standouts on the album include “Like Me,” “Guide,” “Playground” and “Lay Me Down.” “Like Me” is a nine-minute behemoth that consumes much of the 45-minute runtime of the album, but paces itself well with two beat switches and some of the album’s more thought-provoking lyrics.“Guide” and “Playground” are bouncy, funky, fast-paced love anthems carried by a Prince-like falsetto and a playful demeanor. On the other hand, “Lay Me Down” is a lot more sultry and slow with an airy ambience to it.
At the same time, the album includes weaker cuts like “In Lust We Trust” and “Love 2 Fast.” They absolutely fizzle under simplistic, bland guitar-plucking and boring vocals. These tracks also fall victim to a lack of distinction between its verses and chorus, making for a near-monotonous experience throughout.
Apollo XXI is nothing new, grand or game-changing in terms of what Lacy’s bringing to the music scene or his discography. But it’s an impressive start to a solo career produced entirely on an iPhone at 21 years of age. Through his warped synths, mature lyricism, wispy guitar and flawless falsetto, Steve Lacy proves he’s an act worth reckoning with, presenting himself as truly as he can as an independent artist. As a debut, this serves as a definitive statement on Lacy’s unwavering potential to make an impact in music — a task he will undoubtedly commit to given the excellency of Apollo XXI.