Steven Zhu's career has risen in reverse.
His breakthrough 2014 single "Faded," a lithe, late-night house cut, took off before anyone knew anything about the artist going by the name Zhu. When the Bay Area-raised, now L.A.-based producer earned a Grammy nomination for it in 2015, no fan had yet seen his face.
Instead of small club gigs or DJ nights, his first show was a festival-headlining slot at Hard Day of the Dead, where he played to tens of thousands.
And now, after all that, he finally got around to releasing his debut full-length album.
"Generationwhy" is a coming-out party for Zhu, an occasion to drop some of the smoke-and-mirrors surrounding his rollout, and to redefine voice in dance music.
He admits that, given the long wait for the album (he's previously released two shorter EPs) and the fairly radical revamp of his sound, "Generationwhy" may turn off some of his fan base. But it was a risk he felt he had to take.
"It's a moment where some people are going to continue on the journey, and some won't. At first listen, a lot of them might not like it," Zhu admitted, from the control room of his Culver City studio. "For sure, it's scary. But I don't ever want to be completely sure of something."
That might come as a surprise to club-music fans who watched the 27-year-old Zhu's ascent. Between his Weeknd-style identity mysteries (before "Faded," he was a USC music school student with a smattering of low-profile tracks), refusing to have his face photographed, and a live setup built around obscuring light screens, control would seem like Zhu's central operating system.
But from the baby picture on the new album cover, a barrage of billboards on the 10 Freeway leading out to Coachella this year, and a bold new approach to vocals (he sings with a sleek falsetto that, while not virtuosic, establishes him as a credible frontman), he's finally putting more of himself out there as a person.
"I've always liked mystery and curiosity, and still I think that's gotten lost today. But I don't believe anyone can be invisible," he said. "I wanted to move into the direction of the light."
That new candor is on display in "Generationwhy." It's a long but optimistic record that touches on Disclosure-style deep house, Sade-smooth croons and even some '80s–shredded classic-rock soloing ("For some reason, when you play sax solos live, girls in the crowd just go crazy," he said). There are tracks like "In the Morning" that could knock hard in a warehouse, but more of it is contemplative, suave and even a little sunny.
"Generationwhy" starts dark but ends healthy and hopeful. Given how dance music has shifted toward slower tempos and earnest, escapist spirituality, it's an au courant move.
But will it be a "Faded"-level hit?
"Generationwhy" came out July 29 on his new major label Columbia (with a co-sign from his longtime Mind of a Genius imprint). As labels and promoters try to figure out what's coming after the EDM wave, Zhu won't have a second chance to make a mysterious first impression. If he's going to become a lasting star, he'll now have to be a fully present one.
"I always saw 'Faded' as a river leading into his ocean. I think fans are going to really feel his density as a human being," said David Dann, CEO of Mind of a Genius. "No one is expecting this to sell 10 million copies. But we think he can be someone like Pharrell, who can lead his fans into every genre."
With several big shows coming up (he headlines San Diego's popular CRSSD fest in October), it's a make-or-break time to become a credible underground crossover figure. It would also make him, along with Steve Aoki, one of the most prominent Asian American musicians in the country, a role he gladly accepts but has complicated feelings about.
"Could all of this have happened for me if my face was on my profile from the start? I don't know," he says, shrugging."There are definitely stereotypes, and America is very black-and-white in terms of its music. But I grew up soaking in all kinds of music, and if Asians can see this and know they can do something really different and not have to be, like, K-Pop, that'd be amazing."
Zhu, on the day of the interview, was due in Santa Ana in a few hours to play a small warm-up show at the Observatory. As he walked through his studio, past racks of new high-end shirts and sweaters, he was about to play one of the smallest shows of his career. And for the first time in a long time, he was a little bit nervous.