Steve Lacy’s birthday album ‘Apollo XXI’ plays with space, time

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Steve Lacy’s debut album has been a long-anticipated project. A star producer, frequently featured voice and up-and-coming R&B singer, the artist has toyed with his first full-length album for about two years. And on May 24, the day after his 21st birthday, the artist released Apollo XXI.

Lacy gets deeply creative on this album. He plays with sound, texture and samples, and in the same way Matthew McConaughey does in “Interstellar,” Lacy’s track list ventures into new and unprecedented spatial and temporal territories.

The nine-minute, three-part structure of “Like Me” exemplifies this beautifully. As Lacy acknowledged in an interview with DJ Zane Lowe, this song finds its thematic roots in the experience of exploring one’s sexuality. With lyrics like “How many out there just like me? / How many others not gon’ tell their family?” Lacy taps into the anxieties of coming out to oneself and one’s friends and family in a way that is explicit and resounding.

And while the narrative Lacy threads here is grounded in an exploration of sexuality, the lyrics can be applied to any experience in which someone has struggled with self-acceptance because of identity. The song can be easily broadened by the listener to apply to identity crises in general — a common struggle, especially when one is entering into their 20s.

Apollo XXI is an album that manifests the experience of coming of age into lyrics and beats. Each song treks across a different aspect of the journey from adolescence to adulthood, representing distinct facets of Lacy’s sexual, emotional and mental growth.

All of those facets come into play in some capacity on “In Lust We Trust.” This track posits Lacy in a sexual crisis, wanting to be with someone so badly that he mistakes lust for romantic bliss. But as the fuzzy, lo-fi rhythm beats in metronome with the catchy melody, the song ends on the note that his desire was not as meaningful as it seemed.

While Lacy crafts a relatable and powerful story with this album, it’s sometimes rough around the edges. Songs like “Guide” provide funky, bell-bottom beats but are overpowered by frantic lyricism that doesn’t hit exactly the way it should. Lacy demonstrates he is a well-rounded, ingenious artist with Apollo XXI. And as a young artist, he is not without flaws.

But on this album, where uncertain sonic fusion lives, so does luxurious tranquility.

“Amandla’s Interlude” trills with delicacy. The violin wails in and out of the melody, a liquid cadence that could almost be mistaken for a crooning voice. The tune’s essence is one akin to the emphatic romanticism of Victorian movie scores and the sunset serendipity of old Western harmonica. It’s three minutes of imaginative instrumental that represents the peaceful, smooth lulls that shine through the chaos of evolution. It feels like home.

With Apollo XXI, Lacy has tapped into impactful terrain — transparency and relatability make good music great. Lacy’s debut album has undeniably solidified him as an artist to watch, one with an incredibly long career in front of him. After all, he is only 21. He has a lot to experience and a lot to learn, and hopefully the new experiences he is in for will continue to inform his music.

As “Outro Freestyle/4ever” plays, the organ-adjacent rhythm of both a wedding and a funeral underlying the lyrics, it is a comfort to know that this outro doesn’t signal the end of Lacy’s journey. It symbolizes just the beginning.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].