Steve Lacy review – the real deal
The feted young California singer-songwriter gives a blistering performance centred on his 2022 album Gemini Rights – a record so good he plays some of it twice…
No calendar year can ever belong to any single artist. But a 24-year-old guitarist from Compton, California – Steve Lacy – can certainly lay claim to being one of 2022’s more satisfying success stories. On the first of two sold-out nights in London, the bandleader exudes a wiry, genial presence, as befits a creative who has entered their imperial phase.
Not so long ago, Lacy was a teenager, brought into hazy Los Angeles neo-funk outfit the Internet to play guitar. He ended up being nominated for a 2016 Grammy for his production work. Now, catapulted into working with A-listers such as Kendrick Lamar and J Cole, he is two albums into a solo career – a storied prodigy who has pupated into the real deal.
He’s funny from the off, asking people to put their phones down because he finds them “distracting”. “It’s not an easy job,” Lacy notes impishly, “being this sexy and playing instruments.” (This ban lasts all of 20 seconds.)
His songs, meanwhile, munch hungrily through moods and sounds, his band fleshing out Lacy’s songs with drums, bass and two sets of keyboards. The opener, Buttons, is a heavy, funky declaration of love. Mercury is all sparkling bossanova and “ba-ba-ba”s, taking aim at the bad reputation of Lacy’s star sign, Gemini, the twins. “You think I’m two-faced? I can name 23,” he sighs.
On Only If, a future Lacy reassures his younger self that if he conquers his fear, “that is when your life appears”. Were the track not so tinged with sexual questioning and creative vulnerability, so 21st century, you might mistake it for Prince.
Although he is absolutely a gen Z poster boy – a digital native into astrology and graphic candour – Lacy has a lot of time for the past. It’s not just Prince. Tonight, he and his band sport a look debuted in his videos: white shirts painted with a black “S”. The addition of a black tie makes it into a dollar sign. Interestingly, California punks the Dead Kennedys inaugurated this look, aimed at the hollow venality of the music industry, circa 1980.
Meanwhile, Lacy’s oversized eyewear and tight braids strongly recall Stevie Wonder, another musician whose talents manifested early. Lacy’s songs are full of starry-eyed declarations of love – and lashings of unbridled lust; he also brings to mind Rick James.
This hotness is aimed at both sexes. Lacy came out as bisexual in 2017, and his outstanding record of 2022, Gemini Rights, is a breakup album that charts messy, unfinished feelings of thwarted love as hot takes. “I’m over boys,” he sings exasperatedly on Static, “would you be my girlfriend, baby?”
The older N Side, meanwhile, is a tender, plaintive song about sexual technique (“Tell me, is it inside?”). It ends with a blistering guitar solo from Lacy, redolent of Jimi Hendrix put through a loop station; the first of the night’s many bravura moments.
Although he’s a SoundCloud-era operative, Lacy is first and foremost an old-school instrumentalist who has topped different genre charts in the US with the same song. His hit Bad Habit – glorious tonight – blew up big on TikTok this year.
What’s more intriguing is that this slackerish R&B ballad – in which Lacy self-flagellates about missing his moment, romantically – was propelled by TikTok up the US Billboard charts from No 100 to No 1. (After some weeks at No 2, it dethroned another hot pretender of 2022, Harry Styles.) Bad Habit is actually having its moment, and then some.
When Lacy asks people to put their phones away, it’s just as deliciously ironic. His own old iPhone, complete with cracked screen, is now so famous it’s on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, as emblematic of the past 150 years of popular culture. Much of Lacy’s early work was recorded and produced on it, via the GarageBand app, including his own 2017 EP, Steve Lacy’s Demo, and 2019’s debut album proper, Apollo XXI.
However, for Gemini Rights – Lacy’s 2022 tour de force – he had access to all the toys of a proper studio. Some of these Gemini songs are so good, Lacy plays them twice, just for the unbridled joy of it. After one rendition of Helmet, a tune whose perky squelch can’t quite mask his heartache, he asks if he can do the song again, slower, because it’s one of his favourites.
As well as the thrill of witnessing an artist of the moment playing a slew of terrific songs that snowballed into ubiquity this year, this is a gig refreshingly free of naff, overplayed entertainer moves. Lacy still seems unjaded, cracking dick jokes and hoping he and the crowd can “grow old together”. Perhaps the most persuasive citation for his extraordinariness is that, as he told an interviewer recently: “I didn’t have to dim my light.” Dollar shirts aside, this singular artist made it to where he is seemingly by just being himself.