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Chartbreaker: How Steve Lacy’s Tumultuous Year Led To His Best Work — And A Breakout Hit

The Internet member turned solo star's "Bad Habit" continues to climb on the Hot 100, boosted by its streaming dominance and recent radio crossover.

2021 was a roller coaster for Steve Lacy. After the low of a breakup, he leaned into creating new relationships — particularly with like-minded creatives who ended up helping him record his major label debut album, Gemini Rights. “For a while, I was really shy — I didn’t want to ask anybody for anything,” he admits. “But in order for me to grow, I couldn’t follow those same patterns.” Once he opened up, everybody from rising singer Fousheé to Tyler, The Creator ended up as trusted advisors, both of whom helped shape what became Lacy’s breakout hit, “Bad Habit.”

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As Lacy recalls of the song’s initial session in June 2021, “the drums were different, the chorus was different.” During a later trip to the studio with Fousheé, during which he played her the instrumental, the two bounced ideas off each other before landing on the melody for the chorus and writing the verses. (Her vocals open the song.) Over the course of the next year, Lacy continued to tweak the track, changing up the beat toward song’s end and adjusting a lyric in the chorus after getting a tip from prior collaborator Tyler, the Creator.

“At first it was, ‘I wish I knew you/ I wish I knew you wanted me,’ ” Lacy says. “And then he was like, ‘It’d actually be more memorable if you cut that word [‘you’] out,’ so shout out to Tyler.”

Released on June 29 as the second single from Gemini Rights, the guitar-driven pop/rock/R&B fusion earned Lacy, 24, his first entry on Billboard Hot 100 — though previous work has landed him on other Billboard charts. As a teenager, Lacy made a name for himself as an adept producer, songwriter and guitarist. In 2015, at age 17, he received his first credits as a co-executive producer of The Internet’s Grammy-nominated third album Ego Death. He later appeared on various genre-specific charts thanks to his work with the hip-hop collective, as well as a collaborator with artists including Tyler, Frank Ocean and Vampire Weekend.

Over time, Lacy’s Internet bandmates Syd, Matt Martians and Chris Smith began working on solo projects, but it wasn’t until the lattermost suggested that Lacy do the same that he started honing in on his own artistry. Through his manager Dave Airaudi’s artist innovation company, 3qtr, and AWAL Recordings, the Compton, Calif., native released his debut solo album, Apollo XXI. The 2019 project earned him his second Grammy nomination (and first as a solo artist) for best urban contemporary album.

Lacy followed it up with 2020’s The Lo-Fis, a hodgepodge of demos, leaks and throwaway tracks. For a while, he used his iPhone to record and express ideas. “I wasn’t doing that because I wanted to, I just didn’t have [money] like that at the time,” he clarifies.

Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy Alex Harper

His situation changed last year when, after much debate, Lacy decided to pursue the major label route, signing with RCA Records. “I wanted a bigger team, more science on how things work, more access,” he says. “I respected RCA the most because they have the artists that I love and that seem to own their narrative and do things their way. People like Doja Cat, Bryson Tiller, Lucky Daye, SZA. I feel like it’s where I fit the most. They let me make my album how I do my process. It just feels good.”

Adds Airaudi: “A lot of what I do is try to translate the rationale behind what Steve’s doing to the people on the label side who are tasked with pushing things out. We argue, of course, but Steve picks stuff that he wants to do and 99% of the time, it’s just when he feels like it.”

Still, even as Airaudi “helps execute all the crazy ideas that float through my mind,” Lacy says, RCA helped him grow his audience ahead of the release of Gemini Rights — his first release on the label — including having him create a TikTok account where his videos have since accrued more than 3 million likes. “[RCA] definitely told me to get on that sh-t,” he laughs. “I was all grumpy, then I was like, ‘You know what? This sh-t lowkey fun.’ We found a middle ground. When I’m in the mood to make a video, I do it.” To date, “Bad Habit” has soundtracked more than 210,000 videos on the platform.

Steve Lacy David Airaudi
David Airaudi, left, and Steve Lacy photographed on July 22, 2022 at ASH Staging Concept House in Los Angeles. Alex Harper

In the days leading up to the release of Gemini Rights, “Bad Habit” debuted on the Hot 100; and a week after the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 7, the track surged to No. 14, thanks largely to its streaming dominance. While it remains a powerhouse on DSPs — it currently sits at No. 2 on Billboard‘s Streaming Songs chart — it also reaches a new No. 11 high on the Aug. 6-dated Hot 100 as it becomes a crossover radio smash, entering Pop Airplay at No. 32 this week.

Come fall, Lacy will hit the road for a 27-date North American tour, which will conclude with a hometown show at The Greek Theatre in L.A. on Nov. 11. He doesn’t offer too many details, but after performing at Coachella in April, the singer is eager to continue connecting with his fans. And though he remains largely blasé about his rapid ascent in the business, only suggesting he will keep momentum by staying “swagged out,” the enormity of this moment isn’t lost on him, either.

“I’m just grateful,” he says. “It still doesn’t feel real yet.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 6, 2022, issue of Billboard.