Steve Lacy, both product of the Internet era and the producer/multi-instrumentalist for The Internet, turned 21 years old the day before releasing his debut album.
Twenty-nineteen marks three years of Steve Lacy against the World, and Apollo XXI sets out to define the newly-of-age Lacy against soundscapes new and old with overtones of soul, hip-hop, indie, pop, funk and psychedelia. He has successfully dabbled in it all across his impressive CV, which includes work for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Vampire Weekend, Blood Orange and Tyler The Creator. While those sounds certainly declare themselves, Lacy struggles to emulsify them correctly.
Three major categories have hamstrung the potency of Apollo XXI: big ambitions, falsetto singing and the giant shadow of Prince. Let’s start with Steve’s singing.
A prime specimen for cross-sectioning is “Playground.” Musically speaking, it starts out rocking on every cylinder until the song’s main refrain enters. “Playground” is the singular occasion on Apollo XXI in which nearly all the genres he dabbles in come together in one psychedelic space ballad. It’s meant to kick the album off in a blaze of glory, but Lacy’s decision to reach high up into the outer limits of his vocal register quickly extinguish the spark provided by the funky instrumentation, and doesn’t get any better moving forward.
The shaky singing brings forth the uninteresting lyrics, and, all together, it sounds like a squandered opportunity. “Guide” similarly struggles to convince the listener that his voice is well-suited for that kind high-end range.
A track like “Lay Me Down,” which brings down his range ever-so-slightly, shows how easy the adjustment can be—it’s perfect. Paired together with the very wide open, slow burning hi hats (and nothing else for stretches at a time), “Lay Me Down” makes for one of the best sing-alongs in the book.
Much like “Lay Me Down,” less is more (and vice versa) when Lacy’s most ambitious performances don’t pan out. “Playground,” “Guide,” and the five minutes tacked onto the end of “Like Me” hope to provide new frontiers for Steve, but fail to stack up correctly. “Only If,’ “Like Me,” “Lay Me Down,” “Hate CD,” “Amandla’s Interlude” and “Outro Freestyle/4Ever” are the album’s saving graces, but rarely feel out of his comfort zone. “Basement Jack,” “In Lust We Trust” and “Love 2 Fast” are somewhere in the middle. Omit the excess and you have a project comparable to his 2016 demo, beloved by many but featuring some of the same weaknesses.
Basically, Steve Lacy is either punching above or below his weight class to the point that the album is left without a reliable yard stick to measure his progress with.
Lastly, Apollo XXI carries an excessive admiration for the late, great Prince.
There’s a grocery list of musicians out there paying tribute to his elite catalog — some do it well, few do it justice. While it’s an enlightening blueprint to work from, imitating Prince’s sound is a gambit for almost any musician. The end result, good or bad, is almost certainly cast in the shadow of the Purple One’s legacy.
What can be said, however, is that young Lacy could suit up for the role. While he’s currently struggling to find the voice as a solo artist, the 21-year-old prodigy is a gifted multi-instrumentalist who more than likely has the chops to channel Prince’s spirit to a 21st century soundscape. He just does a lousy job of it on Apollo XXI.
One mediocre album doesn’t erase the small mountain of awesome contributions to Steve Lacy’s name, but his solo debut is a tough pill to swallow.