By: Wylie Feaster
Before jumping into the nine-minute long “Like Me,” Steve Lacy, claiming full control of his first solo debut album, one that was written separately from his actual band The Internet, addresses the listener directly: “This is about me, what I am. I didn’t wanna make it a big deal, but I did wanna make a song, I’ll admit…I don’t know if you can still relate, you know, and that’s what I’m afraid of. I just want to relate to everyone.” Right off the bat, with an album starting the way this one does, something feels right, as if Lacy has been practicing, has been practicing this for years. In our day and age, with a music industry rich with state-of-the-art recording technology and sampling capabilities, anyone can essentially create festival-ready funk. But not everyone can make it right. On Apollo XXI, Lacy’s musicianship pays off.
I have always known Steve Lacy as “the feature” — not the solo artist I now know and love. His band The Internet has always been one of my favorites, especially since it represents how talented the Odd Future gang really is, and how one splinter project can revolutionize how we look at modern R&B. He has always been part of a package deal with other artists, obviously talented enough to be part of the project, but not quite loud enough to establish his own distinct sound.
Luckily, with Apollo XXI, all of that has changed. The nine-minute masterpiece “Like Me” sets up the main point of tension in the album: Lacy’s bisexuality. He is worried about the repercussions of coming out and owning his identity. Luckily, the song’s intentional repetition pushes him through: if he can convince himself that there are others out there just like him, with the same fears, the same situation, maybe he can put it all out there. After pouring his heart out on the opener, the rest of the album sounds like liberation, mixed with an insane amount of sexual freedom and power. There is so much newfound confidence hidden behind Lacy’s words that the listener — that’s you — cannot help but feel joy for the twenty-one-year-old. After “Like Me,” we have “Playground,” a high-pitched voice of desire belting and echoing over a smooth guitar and consistent drumbeat. In a different review, this song went as far as being described as what “Woodstock would sound like in 2019 (if it wasn’t already such a disaster) — a real Flower Power, bell-bottomed-jeaned f•••fest” (Maicki).
As if that wasn’t enough, Lacy cranks it up a notch on “Basement Jack,” propping verses all about his sexual desires over a grimy guitar synth and a very familiar, recurring drum kit. He admits that he has been “out the basement,” aroused by the way his newfound position makes him feel. To me, I cannot help but link this lyric to a very similar phrase which I can infer means the same thing: “coming out of the closet.” During the chorus, Lacy sings, “Love me like your doja, ride me like your lover / Touch me ‘round my wasteland, I’ve been out the basement.” Doja, which is just a fancy term for marijuana, is used, in this context, to portray another one of Lacy’s desires: attention. He is referring to how someone can intensely love their weed (doja) and wants the same metaphorical type of care reciprocated.
On “Guide,” Lacy pushes himself to the very edge of his own falsetto, while “Lay Me Down” has him making love to a truly legendary guitar solo. With “Hate CD,” he confesses his love for another, stating that he “hates coming down.” Production-wise, this track alone is gorgeous — there is an addictive jangle in the background, nuanced by Lacy’s staple guitar-play and ethereal vocals. As imaginative and stimulating as the entire Apollo XXI album is, I do confess that when Lacy slows down the pace, exactly like he does on “N Side,” which can still one-hundred percent be enjoyed by itself, the project loses some of its passion, some its sexual flare and buoyancy if you will. As I made my way through Apollo XXI, a forty-three-minute story chock full of fear, fortitude, and intense frolic and f•••ery, I keep forgetting that this is Lacy, one-hundred percent alone, one-hundred percent himself. For the first time in his music career, it’s all about him and the talent he’s been perfecting for the past five years. While the album, lyrically, doesn’t make any bold statements, with “Like Me” being the only major exception, it is so much more than just a man and his guitar — it’s an impressively complex introduction to Steve Lacy, an artist coming into his own.