Steve Lacy is moving at high speeds. The Compton native and musical polymath was still in high school when he became a member of the Internet, the R&B project helmed by erstwhile Odd Future engineer Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians of the psych-funk group the Jet Age of Tomorrow. Lacy’s playing gave the band a beefier low end, and the experience emboldened him to flesh out the music he had learned to make on his iPhone. The promise of “Curse” — the gorgeous, jazzy closer from Ego Death, the acclaimed 2015 Internet album Lacy premiered on — and of tantalizing tracks like the ominous “Dark Red” (from the 2017 EP Steve Lacy’s Demo) manifested in the accomplished but insular Apollo XXI, his 2019 solo debut. “Like Me,” a nine-minute psychedelic bedroom symphony, coasts through genres while Lacy vents about feeling smothered by heteronormative mores and a culture of conformity, and Apollo’s hair-raising “4ever” outro is good enough to double as an interlude in Solange’s When I Get Home album. So where do you go when your early work is tight enough to grant you audiences with your favorite musicians?
During a Zoom call just after July 4th weekend — in advance of the release of his sophomore album, Gemini Rights, this Friday — Lacy explained that his new tracks are rooted not just in the fallout from a big breakup but also in a desire to trace the footsteps of his musical heroes and better himself as a player. The songs sport denser mixes, smoother changes, and assists from collaborators like DJ Dahi (Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees,” Mac Miller’s “Self Care,” Vampire Weekend’s “Big Blue”; there’s more on all three parties later, promise) and John Carroll Kirby (Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, Solange’s When I Get Home and A Seat at the Table), who sporadically add colors to rich productions. Lacy plunders anachronistic musical scenes in the interest of bringing fans together and pursuing his own wide-ranging tastes. The rock songs come with pleading R&B vocals; jazz and psych collide with funk, hip-hop, and Latin jazz. The seamlessness of it all suggests a keen imagination and a deep record collection. I can confirm Steve Lacy knows his shit.
I’m curious about the title of your new album, Gemini Rights.
Well, I was tipsy in a bar with my friend Jasmine, and I just kind of said it jokingly. I was like, “Yo, what if that’s the title of my album?” And then Jasmine gave a whole rundown of why it made sense. It was kind of like loosely there as I was writing, but I wasn’t thinking too hard about it. But I think the more the songs formed, the more it stuck. I never make my mind up too fast. I can be impulsive. I have a very fluid relationship to change. When I finished the record, and we had that title, it created this theme to build this character up. Gemini, almost like the Joker a little bit. The Joker thing … I tapped into that when we were shooting “Bad Habit,” the music video, which was just me and my body. Julian said, “If the movements are wider, it’ll look more grand on camera.” I went full-blown maniac, moving my arms and my body big. Like, Okay, I’m going to tap into this character.
I’ve been thinking about the long tradition of musical Geminis. There’s Prince, Andre 3000, Kanye, Lenny Kravitz — so many musicians I see as precursors to your sound share an astrological sign.
Geminis create change. If you look at the common thread of Kendrick, Ye, Prince, Three Stacks, I think all these people create change.
Talk about progressing from recording music on your iPhone to a laptop to a more formal studio. What did the room do for these latest recordings?
The iPhone thing was literally all I had at the time. When I started — and I think this is every artist — you have no idea where this thing could possibly take you. Most of it was demos for other people. I would just pitch songs for the Internet, and that’s kinda all I used it for. I didn’t really plan on making my own stuff. My process was always: Make a track, find the hook. And then my verses would be open. So that’s how songs like “Curse” came about. I had these demos, and I didn’t know who they would go to. Around the time we did The Internet Presents: The Internet, everyone was showcasing their solo stuff. Matt had a record. Syd was working on one. Then Chris. Someone was like, “Steve, you should do one, too.” That’s how the demos came. I say all that to say the iPhone thing was just ideas for me to express. That’s all I cared about: expression. The more that I progress as an artist, the more it becomes about executing an idea. At first it was like, This is the idea. This is it, the demo, the raw. Boom. But you can’t keep doing that. It’s cool when you first come out ’cause no one expects shit from you. Then I grew, and I think I set a really high bar for myself and how I would progress. Apollo taught me that. I tried to kind of do the same raw, pure expression thing but not on the phone.
Working on this new record, I was still at home on my laptop, engineering and recording myself. I felt like I hit a wall. I don’t even remember how or why. But I was like, I want to get in the studio. It really helped me focus and execute an idea in a totally different way. I’d been mixing and mastering everything. I was panning my vocals. I was doing all of that shit. When I was given this opportunity to work in the studio with an engineer, it gave me a chance to focus on being an artist. I didn’t have to think about all the other shit. I didn’t have to be my own engineer. That was his job, to make sure everything sounded good, make sure all the frequencies were right and dialed in. I could just get on my instruments and be like, “I want to do this right now.” It’s a small thing, but it was so big to help form this record.
Is it fair to say this is a much busier and more collaborative record than the previous ones? I haven’t seen it inside of a digital audio workstation, but I hear more building blocks this time.
Yeah. I definitely opened myself up to bringing people into this process. I needed an outside voice. I wanted to expand. I wanted this one to sound bigger and better. I knew that I couldn’t do it by myself. It was a beautiful realization. The collaborators that I asked to be a part of this really helped it.
You called up DJ Dahi, who we know from songs with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and John Carroll Kirby, who worked on Solange’s and Blood Orange’s music. You worked with Fousheé. And did your mom and sisters sing backing vocals? I spotted a few other Lacys in the credits.
Yeah. It was so fun. Creativity to me is just chasing fun. If it starts to feel not fun, if I don’t smile, I’m like, All right. I don’t like this anymore. So I think I have to be with different people who make me see the fun in it. Dahi is someone that I respect so much. He’s kind of my mentor. I see him as a super-producer, like a modern-day Timbo. His sonic landscapes are insane. I’ve been working with him since I was 17 or 18. We met through Ezra from Vampire Weekend around Father of the Bride.
I forget that you sing on “Sunflower.”
That was a dream come true. Ezra took me in. That was dope. I’m Vampire Weekend’s first feature ever. That’s pretty cool ’cause I’ve been listening to them since I was like 12, bro. I used to watch their concerts on YouTube. I didn’t really go to live shows as a kid. My mom was like, “I’m not taking you. I’m not buying you tickets.” So I would watch things online. It’s funny: The first time I went to a Vampire Weekend show, I was their guest at MSG. I was like, This is fucking crazy. Twelve-year-old me was squealing.
You have a song called “That’s No Fun” that talks about living in a constant state of evolution in a way that really bears out how fast things happened in your career. One year, you’re watching someone on YouTube, and the next, you’re in a room with them. It’s disorienting having your life change and not understanding how differently other people are looking at you. And I feel like the new album is about redrawing your boundaries and upping your expectations for people who’ve come to expect a lot from you.
Actually this record was more me reconnecting with people, not separating myself from what people would like.
I latched onto the “Please don’t bother me” in “Cody Freestyle.” I felt like it was saying, I need some of you around, but I need some of you to stay away forever.
This record was tapping more into like what connects us all as people. I want to become closer to what connects us as humans. I talk about very human things in a very human way that made me really proud of what this is. “Please don’t bother me …” The “Cody” is short for “codependent.”
I was about to ask if you made it in Wyoming.
Nah, I wasn’t in Wyoming. It was just a funny way to say “codependent freestyle.” I was writing while I was going through a situation with someone who wanted to define what we were too quickly. “Please don’t bother me. Don’t depend on me.” I feel the last line defines what I was talking about in that record, even though it’s pretty snappy, some of the things that I say.
How do you feel about the possibility of people receiving this thing primarily as a breakup album in spite of other thematic threads you touch on in it?
I mean, I want people to take it however they want to take it. I don’t have, like, any expectations on what I want for people to get out of it. When this comes out, it’s no longer mine. It’s everyone’s. I’m very aware of that. I like to leave my ideas very open. Everyone has something different to say. Even “Gemini Rights” is very vague.
I feel like you’re owning your dualities with that title. It lets us know up front there can be more than one interpretation.
Yeah. But very lightly, not too on the nose. You could take it however you want.
Something that struck me this time is the feeling that you’re singing more explicitly about same-sex attraction. Was that a point of stress? People have an easier time conceptualizing queerness when they’re thinking about the physicality of it. You’re putting it there in the middle of the record. I wonder if you’re concerned about how it’ll go over, or if the mindset is just This is my life and they’re gonna hear about it.
I thought this was one of my straighter albums.
You’re listing off names of guys you could be dating in the freestyle. You got bars about the D …
That’s, like, one gay song out of ten.
Okay, but we hear those stray lines and latch on. Maybe we exaggerate in our heads. We don’t get catered to that much. It’s not yet an everyday thing to hear a man in an R&B song singing about another man.
Right. When I was writing the record, I was like, “Damn, this is pretty straight. We gotta get some gay bars in there.” I had to get the gay bars out. I’m writing to girls on there, too.
That’s true. On “Like Me,” on the last record, you were hinting at deeper complexities, and on this record, you’re letting everything air out. I don’t want to limit what’s going on in the lyrics. But the dualities and complexities are on Front Street now, and I think maybe Gemini is a record about that growth and about being like, This is who I am. Deal with it or don’t. There’s a line in “Static” at the beginning of the record that you don’t finish: “Something turned me off / Smoking made me” —
It was “Smoking made me cough” and then my video director, Matt Castianos, who did the “Ryd/Dark Red” video, was in the studio a lot at that time. He said I need to be ahead of the listener. People already know you’re going to say “cough” after “off.” You should actually cough to create that moment. That song came together really crazily.
How do you mean?
I was really, really mad. This was a couple weeks after the breakup. I remember being really frustrated at the guy because he gave some ceramics that I’d made back to my little sister. Like, they got lunch, and I didn’t notice because she house-sat for me when I was gone. I was back home for a day or two at the time. I was clearing up my table, and I saw this bag. It had ceramics that I made that were in his house. I was really pissed. First off, why are you getting lunch with my sister? That’s not natural. I really, really wanted to go off. My best friend, Alan, looked at me while I was ranting on the phone, and he said, “Bro, you can’t do nothing about this.” And that was kind of a moment. It was an opportunity to grow. He was like, “Acting like this won’t be conducive to your growth, blah, blah, blah.” “He wants that rise out of you, da, da, da.” It was a moment to lean on my friends and lean on my craft to help me out of the anger. I went to the studio frustrated, and the first thing I did was get on my Moog Sub 37, which I played a lot on this album. I got on the fucking thing, like [hums the “Static” bassline]. I felt the shit in my whole body.
It sounded sad to me, straight out the gate, like a Lauryn Hill ballad.
I feel like under frustration is always, like, a sadness, so that makes sense too. So I got on the piano, and I was just freestyling, singing on the piano.
You were talking trash.
“Looking for a bitch because I’m over boys.”
This music makes me think about Black musicians denied space in rock and roll early on, about rhythm and blues as a shelf for Black artists making music that could’ve been in major contention with white pop and rock artists. It’s like something is being reclaimed. To me, “Bad Habit” sounds like New Edition making an emo song. I hear generations of sound trickling down through your music and I’m curious whether it’s because you studied this stuff or if it’s like when people reference ‘90s Matador albums for indie rock musicians in their 20s who never heard them.
I don’t go into studio with references. I didn’t listen to a lot of music at the time either. It’s whatever flows through me. I feel I take music in. I think a lot of things I handle very internally. So my inspiration, it kind of flows too. And It’s all very mixed. I pull from a lot of stuff at once and I have a huge knack for juxtaposition. I love combining different elements of music.
I listen to the pop albums that come out and I hear these artists thinking about different genres. The album will cycle through these disparate kinds of sounds. But when I listen to your records, I hear all these ideas mesh in the same song. Take “Buttons.” It has this big psychedelic intro but it pivots into this Raphael Saadiq-type of funk tune. You’re visiting all these different points in history.
That’s what I love about music. Shit is supposed to be shared, flipped, and warped. It’s an opportunity to create new shit with what we’ve been given. I feel like making art or making anything benefits from a knowledge of what’s been done before. That’s what gives you the playground to do whatever the fuck and make something new. I do study a lot of music. I have a jazz background. I was playing rock as a kid on the guitar.
You also played in the church?
For a season, very short.
That’s enough to get the spirit in you.
A little bit. I won’t say I got that much church influence. I was the pastor’s nephew. Everybody was getting paid and I wasn’t getting paid. [Laughs] My uncle, he cool. Everybody cool. My sister Val has an eccentric, eclectic taste in music, She’s gutter, but she listened to Musiq Soulchild and John Mayer. And then we’d listen to Kanye. Everyone was listening to everything, and I appreciated that time. I think that’s why I like combining all this shit, because that’s how I grew up listening to music.
Your guitar playing sounds like you had a little training but you also spent time figuring things out by yourself.
That’s definitely it. I probably had more training in bass than I did guitar, but I feel like I knew just enough. Like, I know what feels good. I don’t know that much. I failed music theory, but I was making music at the time, like making my own tracks and shit. Jazz taught me a lot, like how to walk a bassline. It also taught me keys and scales. Once I had that knowledge, I was like, okay, cool.
And applied it to everything else.
When I first started I was like, “How can I create the jazziest chord progression, with the most transition chords and the most 7ths and 9ths and 13ths?”
Is that what’s going on in “Dark Red”?
That one was me mixing some of the jazz stuff with power chords. I started to mix the jazz with the simple shit too. That came when I started listening to Dirty Projectors. [Dave Longstreth] made me want to mix all types of shit. I was intrigued by — and I’m still intrigued by — how he made simple things complex, how he colors them. I actually stole a melody from him. I met him, and he said he liked “Dark Red.” I was like, “I’m happy you like it. I actually stole one of your melodies.” Sometimes I’ll catch it way later. “Dark Red” was out doing its thing, and I was listening to “Two Doves.” I heard that melody and I was like, “Oh shit, I took that.”
I remember back in 2009 when Dirty Projectors’s Bitte Orca came out and reviews were comparing Amber Coffman’s singing to Mariah Carey and all these R&B and pop songs. Some people thought it was lofty, but over the next decade, looking at credits and cross-referencing personnel on albums from Solange and other people, you do see Dirty Projectors quietly moving through R&B circles.
You know David Longstreth did the bridge to “FourFive Seconds”?
I do! What are the records that inspired you early on? You played Guitar Hero, right? There’s a point in the 2000s where video game soundtracks start blowing everyone’s taste to smithereens. Suddenly you could get an education about indie rap or punk rock from a game. It’s really crazy to think about what sprouts from there over the next two decades.
Even the Madden soundtracks. The Skate 3 soundtrack. That’s how I take music in. Guitar Hero definitely put me onto a bunch of music I would never know about. I think it was at the time I was like falling in love with the guitar. Prior to me playing and owning one, I was obsessed with the instrument, with people who played it, how it looked, how it sounded, the feeling it gave me. I would see guitars, and I’d just want to touch them. I went to Guitar Center before I could even play.
Which guitarists do you look up to?
Jimi Hendrix. Jarris Mosey, the dude who taught me. He’s crazy. Joe Pass. Those are the first ones that come to mind.
Do you listen to Todd Rundgren?
Yeah, of course. But that came later.
There are certain wavy textures in your songs that remind me of his stuff.
Mac DeMarco as well.
That tracks. I want to ask about a specific session. I forgot that you played guitar on “Jet Fuel” off Mac Miller’s Swimming, a song I think about a lot. Do you have any memories of that experience?
That beat actually came from a Kendrick Lamar session. Dahi and I, when we were working on DAMN., the first day I came through to work on that record, we just made beats. He’s so organized. He has all these different drum loops. He had that loop, and I did that groove, but Dot didn’t use it. Dahi just collects stuff. I guess Malcolm was working on his record and he liked the beat that became “Jet Fuel.”
Were you playing shows with The Internet yet when Mac took the band out on tour?
I wasn’t around at that time. I think when they were on that tour, it was kind of when I first started to come around. Mac was one of the first big people to fuck with me. He was just a rad spirit bro. We spent a lot of time together. He wanted to make music, and he liked some of my first ideas. I was, like, “Damn, that’s crazy!” I was still going to school and shit at that time. He was huge to a lot of my peers, but I didn’t say anything. There’s a song on The Lo-Fis called “Daze.” I have a version with him on it. He loved my production, and he’d always send me drums and we’d work together.
I think this is your best record yet. Are you ready for it to drop and flip people out?
Yeah, I feel like I’ve done the work and now I am ready for this. I think I used to be afraid of something like this happening to me. But now I’m like, “No, it’s going to be good.” I’m just judging it on how I feel about it. I know if I feel good about it, then it can only be received good. I put a lot of time and effort into it. I got a question for you, the interviewer. What genre would you place the album under? I need to know. I don’t know. So I’m curious what you would say.
I would slide it into indie rock and let it intrigue people on that side. R&B fans are hardwired to get the boundary breaking and the fusion of rock and soul. I don’t know that indie rock kids come up on slick stuff like “Amber.” Well, that has a bit of Beatles. Do you listen to the Beatles?
Of course, man.
I have to ask. Some people hate the canon. Favorite Beatle?
It was George Harrison for a while because I felt like I could relate to him the most. He was the youngest one. He was always on the search for consciousness, and he put them onto all the hippie shit.
Are you the hippie of The Internet?
Definitely. Then I heard “Arrow Through Me,” and… maybe it’s Paul.
Everyone loves the classic McCartney records but I’m getting more into the stranger, off-peak stuff. The 1979 album with “Arrow Through Me” had gems. Late-period Wings never gets its due.
The music in all the years ending in nines is always crazy. ‘69, ‘79, even 2019. The nines, that transition before it gets to the zero, it’s always a very specific, weird experimental thing.
We mentioned 2009. ‘99 was crazy. 1989, a classic. Thanks for nerding out about music. I needed to when I heard the new album.
I’m a music geek. I’m a band geek at the end of the day. Like always and forever.
Me too. I just enjoyed writing more than practicing an instrument.
As a band geek in school, nobody gives a damn. People, even the staff and administrators, care about the math and science kids and the athletes.
There are so many school music programs dying right now.
It’s so sad. You can’t fuck with the music program. That shit’s so important. I feel like it’s going to fall on the kids to pick it up themselves.
They have the technology. You’re a testament to that.
Hopefully people see this record and see me live and think, “I can do that.” And pick the shit up.
I don’t want to be corny about it but I think it’s important for the songs on this album to be out in the world. You mapped out the taxonomy of guys I see your art descending from.
I appreciate it. And I feel like I gotta keep that thread going, bro, to play like that type of rock star. Like the Princes, the Rick Jameses, the Saadiqs, the D’Angelos. That’s the type of rock star I want to be. It’s not rock because they’re playing rock. It’s rock ‘cause they’re unapologetically making shit and delivering it to you confidently. That’s the path I’m on. I want to do what they’re doing.
Before I let you go, I must know who makes the sunglasses that look like a supervillain mask.
Linda Farrow and Bernhard Willhelm. It’s the C12 mask. I found a pair when I was looking for my outfit at Coachella. Then, we were looking back at photos and videos, and we were all like, “Oh, this looks great.” I decided I was running with it. I got, like, four pairs now.
Gemini Rights album cover Christopher Smith, the band’s drummer Ye moved to Cody, Wyoming in 2019 and famously worked on records there like Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi and Pusha T’s Daytona before selling his ranch last fall. Last month, Lacy told GQ he was “kind of around for the Donda thing