Steve Lacy: The sexed-up heir to Prince and Stevie Wonder

Compton artist’s career has already seen him work on A-list collaborations and write hit solo songs

Once, fame meant being universally recognised — but these days even well-connected musicians can get confused. “Instagram celebrities who have 100 million followers: who the f**k is this person?” says Steve Lacy. In 2022, he says, “fame is super-subjective — you’re only famous to people who think you’re famous.”

To the other 80 per cent of the world, you’re a nobody. Me, I won’t be famous until you can feel my fame. You know: when motherf**kers walk in the room and you’re like, oh, I can feel that fame. But I’m just a dude, bro.”

Be that as it may, at just 24-years-old, the US singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer is a star in a boringly quantifiable way: hundreds of millions of streams for his psychedelic pop songs, topped up with more from his funk supergroup the Internet, plus tracks he’s made with Solange, Vampire Weekend and a host of rappers including Kendrick Lamar and YG. But he is also a star in that room-changing way where barometric pressure seems to shift around him.

As a kid there was so much homophobia. I love dance but I was like, I don’t want people to assume I’m gay

Flared trousers and a Balenciaga jacket announce his fashion credentials but it’s the eyewear that sets him apart. A giant pair of Bottega Veneta ski goggles — presumably worn to keep north London’s notorious risk of June snowblindness at bay — are removed to reveal another pair of entirely ornamental specs underneath, an eye mask in heavy transparent plastic: a deeply flawed superhero disguise, or the garb of an evil dentist.

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Lacy is also very pretty — at a London gig in 2019, the audience screamed at seagull frequencies — and has blown up on TikTok of late, but the main source of his star power is his music: breezy but fraught, sensual but never slick, he’s one of the most exciting and singular songwriters of his abundantly talented generation. Comparisons to early 70s Stevie Wonder or early 80s Prince are valid: not only is Lacy just as startlingly young and already a decade into his career, but there is also the sense of an artist painting with colours he has mixed himself.

His second album, Gemini Rights, is out next week, and like his 2019 debut Apollo XXI, Wonder-ing R & romance is told through endlessly repayable slacker indie, leaving you in a genre-free pool of sunshine.

“Something big for me as a kid, and to this day, is owning my narrative. I didn’t want to do things if it would put a title on me,” he says. “As a kid there was so much homophobia. I love dance but I was like, I don’t want people to assume I’m gay, so I didn’t discover dancing. A lot of people didn’t know I could sing until I put some music out because I didn’t want my family to be, ‘Oh yeah, Steve’s a singer — Steve, sing us something!’ I just didn’t want anyone to assume something. I’m just weird!”

He started his career in childhood, picking up a guitar at the age of 10 and playing in school bands in Compton, Los Angeles. “The band made me feel like a person. When I look back at my childhood, I think of being out of place. I never felt like a normal girl,” he laughs.

He was also attracted to other boys. “As a kid, I just thought it would be a fantasy. I kiss a boy? That’s like” — he bursts into a Sade rendition — “sweetest taboo! It was just so out of the way of anything I could obtain; it sounds crazy, electrifying, that that could ever happen to me. But in the climate [he was in], it was like: absolutely not. I didn’t even think about doing anything about it. School, my friends, my sisters, it was like” — he makes a non-committal “ehhh”.

“And I think the examples of boys who kiss boys that I had around me didn’t carry themselves like me. For instance, you see flamboyance — I was like, okay, that’s really beautiful, but I don’t feel like that’s me. And I also might like girls. It was confusing.” He’s now proudly bisexual, and sees homophobia as having lessened “a little bit — not that much” in the interim. “Maybe it has on the internet! But you’ve got to step outside, it’s not that. I try to go to spaces that will support me — I don’t put myself in harm’s way.”

Aged 15, he saw a friend at school, Jameel Bruner, making a beat on a laptop — “I was so intrigued: what? There’s technology for you to elaborate ideas if you play instruments?” — and Bruner invited him to start playing with his group, The Internet, part of the loose Odd Future collective that spawned Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, Syd, et al. Alongside the band, Lacy started making his own beats, cold-pitching them via email or DM to rappers he admired: Isaiah Rashad, GoldLink, Denzel Curry.

Another collaborator, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, put him in touch with producer DJ Dahi, who became a mentor — Lacy wasn’t even 18 at the time. “He was like: we got to get you on this new Kendrick,” meaning Lamar’s fourth album Damn.

“I came with a laptop on my back, guitar in my hand, ready for whatever. First thing Kendrick says to me in this room full of guys: ‘Yeah, I seen your face in some music videos’. I said, ‘Hey, yours too man!’ I did it, broke the ice. We start jamming on new ideas, he’s playing me stuff he’s working on for Damn. I’m handling myself really cool, calm and collected, but I was freaking the f**k out, you know? There was a moment when it was quiet, Kendrick was on his phone, and I was like: let me play you some beats. Really scary — I jumped off the cliff.”

Lacy played him a demo he had made on his laptop, featuring vocals recorded ad hoc on his iPhone — Lamar used it to back his track Pride. “I was in London the first time it came out. I walked to the Starbucks down the street and I’m listening to the album, and by the time I get back to the hotel, Pride is playing, I’m crying, the Damn electronic billboard is right there — I’m like, what the hell is my life?”

His upward trajectory continued — Apollo XXI was Grammy-nominated — but he had a wobble. “The thing I hated as a kid was being perceived, you saying what I am — and fame would only make that worse. Success was very scary, because I thought I would lose control of myself, my ideas.”

Therapy helped him “be more open in creating, moving the things out of the way that will keep me from being my best self. I was getting rid of that pedestal: an Artist. No — we’re all people contributing to a collective consciousness.”

His self-confidence has grown, too. “The archetype of confidence that we see is: you’ve got to be a di*k about it. No, you don’t, you can enjoy what you’re doing and still be a cool, good person. I didn’t know that! I used to be overly modest, really quiet, I’d even diss myself to seem more humble.”

If you love me more than anything else in your life, I don’t like that sh*t

More life lessons arrived in the form of a break-up with his boyfriend of seven months, an event that has informed much of Gemini Rights. “I just felt like I tried, I kept trying, I kept wanting to try, and nothing was working,” he says of their split. “[I wanted to] just communicate openly, but it was just hard. But I made a great record, and I love him, it’s all good.” Are they back together? “We tried, but no.” What does his ex make of an album that’s all about him? “He liked it — there were certain lines where he was like, hmmm?”

I ask him what he discovered about himself through the relationship and break-up. “I know I’m good at making people feel comfortable — safer than anyone else. I think one thing I do need is space — I love my freedom.”

Does monogamy work for you? “I think there are great things about it. I think there’s a time and place for everything.” He laughs loud and long.

Lacy says he’s seen memes about how much he writes about sex, and if there’s a point where the Stevie Wonder comparisons collapse — and the Prince ones stay standing — it’s when he sings on his stunning new single Bad Habit, “Let’s f**k in the back of the mall, lose control”, or on the thrillingly vicious album track Cody Freestyle, “You had a heavy di*k, a cannon ... I could use your deep throat”. How does sex inspire him creatively?

“What did Kanye say: ‘None of us’d be here without c*m’? That’s my answer!” Another long laugh. He concedes that sex is “inspiring — it makes you feel pretty. Cuddles after, conversations after, the romance — yeah, the romance more than anything.”

Single again, Lacy says: “It’s about me right now. We can connect, but I’m like: can you just connect to someone deeply without making them your person?”

I put it to him that it might be hard for the other person to deal with this lack of commitment. “It is very difficult — you have to find other people who ...” — he switches tack — “If you love me more than anything else in your life, I don’t like that sh*t. Find something to love. It don’t have to be anything crazy — you can love putting your shoelaces in your shoes a certain way, and I’m like: that is so amazing.”

It’s an answer that’s beguiling, much like his music. For all that he bares his teeth on Cody Freestyle — “We don’t gotta be together forever/cos I could do better” — his songs are mostly generous and vulnerable, and there’s no trace of nastiness in his gentle, amused demeanour.

One of Gemini Rights’s universally excellent tracks is Helmet, where he sings: “Loving you was a hazard, so I got my heart a helmet”. But having survived his trials in love and selfhood, he says he’s taken the helmet off again. “My heart is open. I just have a better radar on when to show it.” — Guardian

Gemini Rights is released on July 15th on RCA