steve lacy
[Photo by Julian Klincewicz]

Why Steve Lacy's breakout is one of the most exciting things that happened in 2022

When Harry Styles’ hit single “As It Was” was finally unseated from its 15-week reign at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, after holding it for five weeks consecutively, it was one of the biggest surprises in music of the year. It wasn’t that another major star like Drake or Taylor Swift dropped an instant No. 1 hit — rather, it was because up-and-coming alt-R&B artist Steve Lacy‘s track “Bad Habit” steadily rose to the top spot, after first charting in July. 

When the Gemini Rights song was finally crowned No. 1 on Oct. 3, Lacy marked the occasion with the Instagram caption “iphone boy to superstar.” Considering Lacy literally was recording and producing music on his phone just a decade ago, it is pretty damn wild that he officially had the most popular song in the United States. After all, Lacy has been grinding in the industry and consistently making eclectic, supremely produced music that plays with genre ever since he set foot on the scene in 2013. So it can’t be overstated how thrilling it is to see his meteoric rise.

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Many fans caught wind of the Compton-born artist earlier this year on TikTok where “Bad Habit,” in all of its swanky, funk glory, took off. But it would be a misstep to call him a TikTok artist. To many fans, the 24-year-old has already worn many hats in his career: Steve Lacy, the guitarist in R&B group the Internet, Steve Lacy, the producer for names like Denzel Curry, Kendrick Lamar, and Solange, Steve Lacy, the feature on Vampire Weekend and Dev Hynes tracks, and, of course, Steve Lacy, the solo singer-songwriter. In fact, it was arguably his days in the early-mid 2010s when he was producing — and later appearing in — in the Odd Future-backed group the Internet, which made lush, electronically charged R&B, inspiring a cult following of both fellow musicians and fans around him. Since then, it’s safe to say that few others have had as cool of a career as him in such a short amount of time.

His ascent, then and now, is clearly due to his touch as a recording artist — consistently making a beautiful patchwork of sounds evoking nostalgia, SoCal sunniness, and soul that pushes alt-R&B forward. With the fruitful career he’s had lending his talents to producing and writing for other huge artists, it’s almost no figure that his own music finally crossed over to mainstream audiences. Gemini Rights, for instance, continues his playful qualities as an artist and toys with indie rock, just as much as it does jazz and R&B, to chronicle a breakup — with ample astrology references in tow. It’s essentially the perfect record for the genre-less-favoring streaming generation, and genuinely exciting young fans are riding for such a singular body of work. 

Beyond his transfixing sound, though, Lacy embodies certain Gen Z star quality. Like other recent breakout acts such as Omar Apollo, Lacy is someone who feels homespun as he inches toward stardom, is unafraid to experiment with his sound and lyricism, is confident in his queerness, and charmingly himself. But it’s who he’s always been, since the days he was demo-ing after class. 

It’s equally exciting that he’s taking that energy and his stylish sound all the way to the (famously predictable or old-school) 2023 Grammys. Lacy has already earned two Grammy nominations, both in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category for the Internet’s Ego Death in 2016 and his record Apollo XXI in 2020. But this year, with Record and Song of the Year nominations to his name for “Bad Habit,” as well as nominations in the Best Progressive R&B Album and Best Pop Solo Performance categories, it feels like the golden statues could be his for the taking. Having released Gemini Rights with no expectation that it would go as big as it did, the industry recognition further solidifies what a wild year it’s been for Lacy. Ultimately, you could say it’s a moment that’s “biscuits” and “gravy.”

As of just last week, the first iPhone that Lacy ever made music on was put on display at none other than the Smithsonian in D.C. Featured in an exhibit titled Entertainment Nation, which delves into pop culture history over the past 150 years, the cracked (yes, cracked!) phone is considered a certified artifact. With the year he’s had, it seems fair to say that there could definitely be more museum exhibits surrounding the major-star-in-the-making for years to come. 

It also seems likely that the experimentalist spark that he found in his GarageBand app won’t let up anytime soon — with perhaps even bigger features or unprecedented hits in store, or a career of uplifting other like-minded eclectic talents, like his tourmate/collaborator Fousheé. Whatever is next, it’s great that in 2022 he finally got his due — “iPhone to superstar” is right.