With ‘Bad Habit,’ Steve Lacy redefines rock star for Gen Z


A man near a ceiling

Of his public status as a bisexual singer-songwriter, Steve Lacy says, “I don’t feel brave or tough, it’s just how I exist.”

(Kayla James / For The Times)

In September, Steve Lacy sauntered into the glassy upstairs lounge at the Novo in downtown L.A. bearing some remarkable news. The 24-year-old, Compton-raised singer-songwriter, dressed in a flowy trench coat, shoulder-length braids and imposing full-face sunglasses, had just learned that “Bad Habit,” his bummed-out yet deliriously horny TikTok viral hit turned Billboard Hot 100 smash, had simultaneously topped five different hip-hop/R&B and alternative rock charts (for the record: Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Hot R&B Songs, Hot Rock & Alternative Songs, Hot Rock Songs and Hot Alternative Songs charts.)

It was the first time that a song had ruled all five charts in Billboard history, no less at the same time.

“It’s cool, right?” Lacy said as he kicked back into a leather booth before a wall of color-changing LEDs. “I didn’t have to conform to anything, I can just live in whatever space I want. I never considered myself to be R&B or hip-hop or rock, but I am influenced by all these things. The fact that one song can be recognized as so many things, that’s kind of the point.”

Steve Thomas Lacy-Moya has been many things over his still frighteningly young career. A Black and Filipino teen guitar prodigy; a member of the Odd Future-aligned R&B collective the Internet; a producer to game-changers like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Mac Miller and Solange; a collaborator with Frank Ocean and Vampire Weekend; a solo artist who drew thousands of fans to the Compton airport for the release of his debut album.

Now he’s in a whole new tier: pop star.

Lacy has the musical intelligence of heroes like Stevie Wonder and Prince, the inventiveness and pop savvy of Pharrell Williams and the playfully amorphous sex appeal of Gen Z heartthrobs like Harry Styles, Bad Bunny and Omar Apollo. On his ambitious LP “Gemini Rights,” he synthesized all of it into a defining L.A. album. Lacy, already a two-time Grammy nominee, may be amply rewarded at next year’s ceremony as well, especially now that “Bad Habit” has toppled Styles’ “As It Was” and reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“I do have new anxieties,” Lacy admitted. “I’m always thinking about legacy, how my music’s going to age, because music is always new. There’s people that just heard Prince for the first time today. So it’s like, how do you stay fresh for years? I have no idea.”

He may have no idea, but Lacy’s tightknit family suspected he was capable of this since childhood.

“This is all very surreal, but it’s who he’s been since birth,” his mother, Valerie Lacy, a nurse, said over the phone. “Growing up, I knew Washington Prep [Lacy’s South L.A. high school] had this jammin’ jazz band, but they said Steve can’t be in until 11th grade. I told them, ‘He’s special. You need to have him here.’ I found the teacher and told him, ‘Steve’s a natural.’ I was ready to tear him a new one if he said no, but when he said, ‘We’d love to have your son,’ I had to catch my breath.”

Lacy’s Filipino father died in his childhood. “I definitely feel parts of him for sure,” he said. “I was really young and I didn’t get to meet the whole him. I have to rely on stories from my mom to tell me what he was like, but he left me with a curiosity to understand things deeper. My mom said he was very intuitive.”

His first jams with close friend Jameel Bruner (of the L.A. family that includes bassist Thundercat and jazz/hardcore drummer Ronald Bruner Jr.) were pivotal, as was his first Grammy nomination at 18 for his work on the Internet’s third album, “Ego Death.”

A five-member Black musical group sits for a portrait

The Internet in 2018 from left, Syd, Matt Martians, Patrick Paige II, Christopher Smith and Steve Lacy.

(Renell Medrano / Sony Music)

But “Bad Habit” changed his life forever. The song has 275 million plays on Spotify and yielded nearly 500,000 fan videos on TikTok, culminating in hundreds of millions of views.

The single has a relatable, meme-primed hook about lovesick regret: “I wish I knew you wanted me … I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit / Kinda mad that I didn’t take a stab at it.”

But by the end, Lacy’s making up for lost time. “I turn it on, I make it rowdy … You grabbin’ me hard ‘cause you know what you found … Let’s f— in the back of the mall, lose control.”

The song both rocks and smolders, and it fits across many genres of streaming playlists. It’s got the stacked falsettos and plaintive vocal runs of ‘70s R&B, but its chiming guitar chords recall the Cure, and the track closes with a left-field jazz-fusion breakdown. It doesn’t scream “hit single” at first, but Lacy’s sly ambiguity across genre and desire spoke to millions of Gen Z fans.

“I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it being a hit or anything. I just knew that it was relatable and it was a funny story,” Lacy said. “We were just riffing and writing funny lines, making up phrases that sound ridiculous.”

A man touches a ceiling

Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” doesn’t scream “hit single” at first, but his sly ambiguity across genre and desire spoke to millions of Gen Z fans.

(Kayla James / For The Times)

As low-key as he makes his writing sessions sound, Lacy is an absolutely meticulous producer. Nothing in “Bad Habit,” from the trembling reach of his high notes to the very particular thwack of a snare drum, is tossed off.

“Steve has this ability to master new instruments and to keep learning his craft even though he’s been doing it for so long,” said indie-R&B singer Fousheé, who co-wrote “Bad Habit” and appears across “Gemini Rights.” “Other people his age are out partying, and it’s hard not to get distracted. But he has this ability to sit for hours and focus on the work, while staying playful and explorative.”

Lacy keeps a hard wall around his privacy. He won’t say anything about where he currently lives in L.A. or if the success of “Bad Habit” has afforded him any major luxuries like cars or houses, though he’s stoked about a new Balenciaga catsuit he just bought. “I didn’t think they would ever make anything like that in my size, because I’m a boy,” he joked. (The fashion industry happily accommodates him; he modeled for Marc Jacobs’ spring 2022 campaign after gigs for the late Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Jacquemus and the cover of British GQ Style.) His pleasures are simple and domestic, mostly leisurely brunches with his mom and sisters and strolling with his beloved pit bull, Eve. “It’s a luxury, the days I just get to sit at home and watch TV,” he said.

“I’ve been listening to Steve’s music all my life, whether I wanted to or not,” his sister Asia joked in a phone interview. “I knew I liked it, but when I started to look at this new album separate from my role as his sister, I was like, ‘Damn, I think he’s onto something.’”

A musician holds his electric guitar

“I do have new anxieties,” Steve Lacy says of his newfound fame. “I’m always thinking about legacy, how my music’s going to age.”

(Kayla James / For The Times)

At 10 tracks and 35 minutes, “Gemini Rights” is a short record by contemporary R&B and hip-hop standards. Yet Lacy packs in a rewarding song cycle about his troubled breakup with a recent ex-boyfriend, the women and men who caught his eye afterward, and the sense of peace and possibility — evoked by a ripping guitar solo — on the album’s exultant track “Sunshine.”

“Gemini Rights” kicks off with the bracingly profane “Static,” in which Lacy, who identifies as bisexual, rips into his ex about his drug abuse. “Baby, you got somethin’ in your nose / Sniffin’ that K, did you feel the hole?”

“I was pissed, you know?” Lacy said, about the betrayal that inspired the song. “I was in New York and I got back home and there were these ceramic bowls that were on my table that I had made, that were in my ex’s place. I found out that he had lunch with my little sister to talk about our breakup. I was so angry, but it was a growth edge. I wanted to do all types of crazy things, but that’s what he was looking for by doing stuff like this.”

Are they still in touch, now that Lacy has a chart-topping album partly inspired by him?

“I have no idea what he’s up to,” Lacy said. “This is my job, you know? Songs are not really about him. They’re about me. I’ve got to do this to feel less crazy or alone.”

As one of rock, R&B and hip-hop’s great collaborators, he’s rarely been alone since his career began. With Lamar, Tyler, the Creator, Ocean and Solange in his contacts list, he travels in rare musical circles and looks to branch even further into hard rock soon. “Jack White is so sick. I feel like I’d make some crazy-ass music with him,” he said.

But Lacy is nonchalant about his queer-icon status. Asked if he feels any comradeship with a Black gay pop artist like Lil Nas X, who also writes provocative lyrics about his sex life for the Top 40, Lacy demurred.

A man with sunglasses in all black stands in front of a purple curtain

“I’ve got to do this to feel less crazy or alone,” says Steve Lacy.

(Kayla James / For The Times)

“I don’t like to handle that stuff in a way that’s shocking. I don’t feel brave or tough, it’s just how I exist,” Lacy said. He added that he doesn’t talk about sexuality in the limelight with gay or bi peers like Ocean, Syd and Tyler. Even as he’s deepening the palette for queerness in rock and R&B, he’s wary of getting accolades for it.

“It should be a joke that we put so much emphasis on sexuality,” Lacy said. “But I know I’m from California, and I’m sure it’s bad in some places and OK in others. I don’t think the World is fully that progressive yet. There’s life online, and then there’s life outside.”

Lacy is a striking young Black and Asian bisexual rock star at a time when all corners of his identity are under escalating threat.

“I always call and check in,” his mom added. “I try not to be too mom-ish, but I always say, ‘How’s your mental health, what are you feeling?’ I know it’s hard to keep doing this. I look at artists before him who didn’t fare well, where it was too much to carry. His mental and emotional health is my main concern, that he’s able to take on all that’s required.”

Lacy is coolly contemplative about what this new stage of fame might bring, weeks before he headlines the Greek Theatre on Nov. 11. (The tour is sold out.) “I kind of feel like I went through the hardest part already,” he said.

“That purity and that newness as a teen, not knowing what the f— anything is? I feel like getting over that was the hardest part, but I didn’t have to change to do it,” he continued. “I didn’t have to conform to whatever would make me a ‘success.’ I didn’t have to have people in my ear telling me what will work. I feel more freedom now than expectations, because I didn’t have to change anything. I just had to get better.”

A man in sunglasses, seated, cradles an electric guitar

“I feel more freedom now than expectations,” says Steve Lacy.

(Kayla James / For The Times)

Originally published at www.latimes.com

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