The black helicopter flew in from the east and hovered over the hot tarmac at Compton Municipal Airport. From the cockpit, Steve Lacy waved to the hundreds of fans rushing to greet him.
They’d come from down the block and from miles away on the afternoon of May 24, the release day of Lacy’s debut album, “Apollo XXI.” As the chopper landed, the singer, in a flowy unbuttoned pink shirt, strolled into the throng where he high-fived everyone he could reach before embracing his mother and his manager in the hangar.
It happened to be Lacy’s 21st birthday, and the crowd sang to him as he settled in.
“Steve was always so good at everything he did,” said his mom, Valerie Lacy, dressed in a black “Compton” T-shirt and dancing every time one of his singles came over the PA. But a scene like this, just a few blocks from the home where she raised him, was still “very surreal. It brought tears to my eyes, thinking about the years of struggling, being a single mom and raising my son on my own.”
“I called out of work to be here,” said Lesly Becerra, 21, who drove up from Orange County for the occasion. “He’s an old soul with a ’70s vibe, but he brings something back in a new way.”
For all those kids in Compton, Lacy’s not just revamping a musical era. He’s helping define this one.
Since his teenage years, the singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer has served as a not-so-secret weapon behind the boards for J. Cole, Solange Knowles, Kali Uchis and Mac Miller. He was nominated for a Grammy with his longtime project the Internet at just 17, and won one last year for producing on Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Damn.”
By the time he could drive, Lacy was known around Compton as a musical prodigy who could cut Grammy-caliber beats on his phone and play guitar with a low-key, chameleonic virtuosity. Of black and Filipino heritage, Lacy first earned notice when he joined up with the Internet, the experimental R&B project helmed by Odd Future-aligned singer Syd Tha Kid and Matt Martians. Tyler, the Creator immediately brought him into his fold (watch them play piano together on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”).
But Lacy stood out even among them, and not just for his instrumental gifts (he would later walk for one of Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton runway shows). His Compton upbringing fundamentally shaped him, even as it inspired him to aim past it.
“Growing up in Compton and being surrounded by my community gave me hope for more,” he said. Lacy has a “Compton” tattoo over his chest, both a connection to home and a reminder that “I couldn’t be comfortable. I couldn’t be satisfied. I wanted more. I think that’s what I love most about making it out. I worked for it. I innovated.”
Those innovations have quietly helped shape some of the most important and popular albums of recent history. The Kendrick, Cole and Solange collaborations got the attention (check out his work all over the latter’s pointillist LP, “When I Get Home”). But Lacy is the top-billed guest star on Vampire Weekend’s much-anticipated comeback single “Sunflower,” and his jams with Raphael Saadiq and Devonte Hynes from Blood Orange helped refract his own sound in new directions.
“The artists I’ve worked with pushed me forward by trusting me and believing in me,” Lacy said. “I see little pieces of myself in most of everyone I’ve worked with. Little things that show me I’m in the right place and I could be one of them one day.”
His fans felt the same way about him.
“He’s our age, but the way he does things is an inspiration,” said Yvonne Marquez, 21, from Orange County, waiting in line to meet him at the Compton airport. “It’s like he’s one of us, but he makes you want to do more.”
“When it comes to the music, he speaks to his generation the same way all the greats do. He is honest and reflects the world as it is,” said David Airaudi, the former Interscope executive who helped shepherd Odd Future to fame, and who now manages Lacy and the Internet through his firm Three Quarter. “Seems simple, but so few artists do it. You can’t fake it for these kids, you’re either about it or you’re not.”
With “Apollo XXI,” Lacy’s finally come into his own as a solo artist, one straddling R&B, indie rock and his own idiosyncrasies.
The album has a relaxed, lived-in skillfulness that shows the handiwork of a veteran player. “Apollo’s” hazy sprawl evokes a gently-stoned, peak-’70s Stevie Wonder, but it’s quintessentially L.A. in its mix of retro funk, twitchy beat music and even occasional canyon-rock vibes. “N Side,” his languid bedroom-eyes lead single, might best embody the record. It’s a little sweet, a little filthy, eminently catchy and both cocky and vulnerable at once. But “Like Me,” a three-part, nine-minute suite that veers all over his influences, is its standout achievement.
It’s also a way into the LP’s narrative arc, about Lacy coming to accept and explore his own bisexuality. Lacy came out in 2017, around the time of his first solo work “Steve Lacy’s Demo.” While he wasn’t the first Odd Future affiliate to do so (Syd and Frank Ocean were already out in public), he sings about it with striking candor and insight here. “How many out there just like me?” he asks on “Like Me.” “How many others not gonna tell their family?”
His coming out had speed bumps; Lacy was criticized for saying that he wasn’t sexually attracted to fellow black men, before deleting much of his social media and asking via Tumblr: “PLS LEAVE ME ALONE…not answering any more questions about my sexuality.” But while “Apollo” is not a dramatic coming-out album — “I didn’t wanna make it a big deal,” he says on “Like Me” — his path to self-discovery deeply informs the LP.
“Coming into my understanding of my sexuality helped shaped the record to be carefree, human, fun and honest,” Lacy said. “I didn’t care to say I’m anything because straight artists don’t. This album represents sexual freedom and liberation for me.”
At 21, Lacy already has a Grammy win, scores of A-list collaborations and a debut LP announcing the start of a career as a frontman, one with uncommon sensitivity and skill. That’d be a lifetime worth of work for most artists.
But as Lacy worked his way through every last handshake, selfie request and autographed album at the Compton airport, he feels like he’s just getting started.