There’s cool, and then there’s unmistakable, timeless cool, the type that can’t be taught but can be felt. Steve Lacy is the second kind; one could wake up from a decadeslong cryogenic slumber, look at the guy and say with confidence, “That’s a cool motherf-cker.” It might be the Batman-esque signature shades or the earnest, occasionally diamond-studded smile or the fact that he’s handy with a Stratocaster, to put it mildly.
That “Bad Habit” — the half-shy, half-steamy single from the 24-year-old’s second album, Gemini Rights — became the breakout anthem of late summer 2022 seems almost incidental to Lacy’s low-key charm. In its 13th week on the Billboard Hot 100 — four of which it spent at No. 2 — it dethrones Harry Styles’ juggernaut, “As It Was,” to reach the top spot on the chart dated Oct. 8. And in September, “Bad Habit” reached another striking milestone: It became the first song ever to simultaneously top Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Hot R&B Songs, Hot Rock & Alternative Songs, Hot Rock Songs and Hot Alternative Songs charts. Lacy is generally unswayed by things like chart metrics and TikTok trends, but the statistic does neatly embody his unorthodox approach to stardom: analytics for an artist who isn’t concerned with analytics.
Since his teenage years, Lacy has been establishing himself as a quiet creative force — the kind of artist that may not be recognized on the street, but who the biggest names in the industry point to as the real deal. Born and raised in Compton, Calif., he honed his skills through Guitar Hero and his high school jazz band, where a friend recruited him to sit in on sessions with The Internet, the retro-futuristic R&B group fronted by former Odd Future member Syd. Those sessions resulted in the band’s best album yet, 2015’s Ego Death, and landed Lacy a permanent spot as guitarist. (The album also earned him his first Grammy nomination, for co-production, at 17; he attended the ceremony with his bandmates, then went to high school the next morning as usual.)
David Airaudi, a former head of strategy at Interscope who went on to manage Odd Future, The Internet and Lacy, remembers the lattermost’s early days in the studio. “He was just messing around and having fun like a 16-year-old kid would, but he also had an ear and a sensibility about him that was incredibly advanced,” Airaudi says. “He was getting introduced to old soul artists and things that he hadn’t necessarily heard before, but he was already playing in that ilk without references.” Meanwhile, Lacy was producing studio-quality songs at home with little more than a guitar rigged to his smartphone. He released some under his own name; others ended up on albums like Solange’s When I Get Home, Mac Miller’s Swimming and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
Some artists could retire happily with that résumé. Lacy considers it a warmup. “I was just f-cking about — that’s what they say in the U.K., y’know, mate?” he says breezily in a faux British accent of his early catalog. As we speak, Lacy is shirtless and horizontal: He’s calling from the bed of a New York tattoo shop, where he calmly smiles as an artist etches what Lacy describes as an “abstract angel” onto his neck. He’s in a good mood — though he suffered an asthma attack before last night’s pop-up show in Brooklyn, the crowd picked up his lungs’ slack by singing every word.
Gemini Rights, a wistful collage of rock, funk and R&B, is the first time Lacy has really thought of himself as a solo artist in his own right, and the years spent clarifying exactly what that sounds like through studio experiments and side work have paid off. On first listen, “Bad Habit” is a catchy jam exploring desire from several angles; by the second or third, surprising details emerge from its leisurely groove, like the way the song warps after the beat drops out halfway through, or the poetic meter of the hook, “I wish I knew you want-ed me.” This summer, the song went viral on TikTok, but in an unusually organic way; rather than being tied to a meme or a dance, people seemed to simply be enjoying the music as a soundtrack to their lives.
It also became a runaway streaming success. Following its late June release, the song’s official on-demand U.S. streams skyrocketed from week to week, landing at a high of 21.1 million the week of Aug. 12-18 and still holding at roughly 20.4 million, according to Luminate. “I would be lying if I saw it coming,” says Airaudi. “I mean, we’re charting in like six formats on the radio right now. That was never in the plans.” It’s likely to be among the nominees for the 2023 Grammys’ record and song of the year, and likewise Gemini Rights for album of the year; as for the genre-specific awards that Lacy will be submitted for, the question is how to classify his expansive sound. “You have to be smart about where the music is currently working and about the audience that’s engaged earliest and first,” explains RCA Records COO John Fleckenstein. (Lacy signed with the label just ahead of the album’s July release to maximize its reach.) “But it’s almost like he’s applicable to all categories and no categories at once.”
All of which means Lacy’s behind-the-scenes days are emphatically over. Being referred to as the voice of Gen Z is still a trip for the introvert (“I don’t want to be a spokesperson for nobody,” he politely defers), though his allure is hardly generational. The wide-ranging Gemini Rights suggests that Lacy’s record collection runs deep, and it’s about a breakup, maybe the most universal theme in concept album history. Still, he seems to be connecting most with young listeners, whom Lacy meets eye to eye with his category-defiant sounds and elliptically intimate lyrics about love, lust, heartache and the things a person figures out about themselves in between. “Hope you find peace for yourself/New boyfriend ain’t gon’ fill the void,” his voice echoes on intro track “Static” — a message that could apply to his ex, or to Lacy himself.
Though he prefers not to divulge the details of his personal life, he has been openly bisexual for years, and on Gemini Rights, the ex in question is a man — a detail that reflects his experience but is otherwise rather beside the point. For Fleckenstein, the heart of Lacy’s appeal is an innate understanding between the artist and his young fans. “I think that’s what makes his voice so poignant: He’s saying the things that they already know and hold true,” says Fleckenstein. “I have kids who are big fans of Steve Lacy, and the way they speak is the way he speaks.”
Amid all the hype, Lacy stays pretty Zen. “I just make what I want to make and connect where I can, but I can’t speak for a group of people. We’re all so different,” he says. He’s more excited by the idea of getting to “sculpt ears” — that he could be “some kid’s introduction to music, somehow” or their gateway to the artists that inspired Lacy himself years ago.
One of those inspirations pops up on our Zoom call as Lacy’s tattoo takes shape. With bug-eyed shades, dreads spilling from a messy bun and a polka-dot blouse unbuttoned to the navel, Lenny Kravitz looks exactly like Lenny Kravitz — which is to say, a 58-year-old whose unwavering cool has spanned three decades and counting. Before Lacy was born, the star who won the best male rock performance Grammy four years straight was breaking down boundaries Lacy defies today: categorical limitations on how a Black male rock star should look or sound or identify, none of which have ever fazed the pair of fellow Geminis.
Lenny Kravitz: So this is how we finally meet. It’s funny: You and I have been texting and DM’ing for a long time now.
Steve Lacy: Years!
Kravitz: So congratulations, man. You’re doing exactly what’s needed.
Lacy: It’s crazy. I grew up watching guys like you and D’Angelo and Prince — you were my role models. And as time progressed in the land of the Auto-Tune and the 808s, I didn’t really think there was a place for me. Like, maybe I’m too late, you know? It’s beautiful to see it be received like you guys were received, even in this modern time.
Kravitz: I felt the same back then. I had creative control from the beginning, so nobody was around telling me how to make the records. I’d turn these records in, and they honestly didn’t know what to do with it. At that time — well, I really don’t know what the times are like now, it’s very confusing — but it seemed like things were more categorized, and everything had to fit into a neat little box. And I, of course, like you, did not, and was always being told, “It’s too Black, it’s too white, it’s too rock, it’s too funky, it’s too slow, it’s too fast,” whatever the f-ck it was. Thank God there were people that believed in me. But to see what you’re doing right now, it reinspires me. I listen to you all the time, bro. Your sound is timeless.
Lacy: That’s so cool. There was one song I had that didn’t make the album that I was like, “Man, I should get Lenny Kravitz on this. We should maybe even start a band.”
Kravitz: I would love that.
What would that band sound like?
Lacy: I think our band would sound like… I mean, sex. It’d probably sound like sex.
Did anyone ever sit you down and say, “Hey, you’re great, but you just need to change A, B and C, and you’ll be rich?”
Kravitz: For me, that happened a lot. I moved out when I was 15 and hit the streets in L.A. I started making my music and taking it around. People heard the stuff, knew that I was talented, but were like, “Dude, this is not what a Black artist does. You have to sound like this,” and they would point to whatever was on the radio at the time. I was offered a couple of deals, one really big deal at A&M Records. They offered me a lot of money and said I was going to be a big star and blah, blah, blah. I was living at that time in a Ford Pinto. I had no bread. For as young as I was, I’m really surprised that I didn’t take the deal and think, “OK, I’ll do this now and find myself later” — like a lot of people do. They might start in some cheesier place and evolve later. But my spirit wouldn’t let me. I felt ill. My whole body rejected it. I would walk out of these meetings, turning them down, and go back and sleep in my car.
What about you? How did the whole thing start for you?
Lacy: I’ve been independent this whole time [until Gemini Rights]. I’d had certain offers, but I was always baffled. Doing a deal for music that isn’t made yet confused me from the jump. I’m like, “How do I know the value of this? I don’t even know what it sounds like!” So I just kind of rocked it independent. But for this album, we felt like we wanted more of a partner than a traditional deal, and RCA has been that. But I’ve been very patient. I think I’ve done a good job of looking like I know what I’m doing, even if I didn’t know at the time. I’m pretty stern with things I don’t want to do, similar to what you said — that angel there, being like, “That don’t feel right.” With [Gemini Rights], I wasn’t thinking about hits; I was thinking about relating to people and getting better. But relating to people came second. First, I was just trying to get these feelings out. Now that I know that people can relate, I’m like, “Oh, sh-t. Let’s go!”
Kravitz: You caught a wave, and you’re riding on it.
Lacy: Lenny, aren’t you a Gemini?
Kravitz: Yep. May 26.
Lacy: Mine’s May 23! Do you feel like a Gemini?
Kravitz: Absolutely. From the time I was a small child, my mother would look at me in the morning and say, “OK, which one of you am I dealing with today?”
What are your two sides?
Kravitz: Maybe the introvert and the extrovert. I can be really quiet, a hermit. I spent the whole pandemic in the Bahamas. I saw probably eight people in two years and just recorded music and lived in nature and planted trees. There’s a side of me that can really disappear, and then there’s the other side that is the complete opposite.
Lacy: I can relate. I’m pretty introverted, but when I feel safe, I’m extroverted. It’s all a matter of safety. There’s not that many scenarios where I feel I can be my most extroverted self. There’s always people looking.
Kravitz: I’m going to share a couple spots with you in the future, on the island, where you will have an awakening.
Lacy: If you ever need a housesitter, man… You have a place in Brazil, don’t you? I love Brazil. That was the first place I ever went where I felt like my spirit had been there before.
Kravitz: And I like how in some of your tunes, you throw in those Brazilian bossa nova chords.
In the case of “Mercury,” it’s this weird bossa nova song that you’ve got 12-year-olds rocking out to.
Lacy: People will be like, “My kid loves you, and I checked you out and I love it too!” I’m like, “Damn, that’s what’s up!” Still, I know it’s doing well, but I haven’t really seen it. I don’t fully believe in online. I can’t see it being lived in real life, so it’s hard to gauge. Tours will help.
What inspired you to keep making music, from where you started to where you are now?
Kravitz: Well, that’s the thing: I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet.
Lacy: That’s fire.
Kravitz: Let me make it not sound that dramatic. I’m still just as hungry as I was in high school. I have no choice but to make music. I’ve seen the opposite — friends who’ve been in the business a long time, and they’ve got to make a song because they’re going on the road, but there’s no inspiration. I’m still searching, bro.
Lacy: With this album, I felt like I almost needed to get out of the way of it. I felt a little too close. I needed to move. You know that thing where the perception of self is too heavy? That gets on my nerves sometimes.
Kravitz: I really hope that people like you are exposing the next generation to a freedom they can understand. It doesn’t have to sound like the formula of the 15 songs they hear all the time.
There’s this idea that people now have no attention spans because of technology, and as a result, popular culture can feel disposable.
Lacy: Oh, my God. I don’t believe that sh-t. I feel like people just aren’t putting the time in to make things that last longer. Me, I study things that last. I’m like, “What are those elements of songs that last?” I realized that it’s songwriting, drum selection, melodies and lyrics.
Kravitz: Drum sounds, man! I spend so much time on the drums.
Lacy: It can kill a whole song. I’m so anal about the drums. You got any drum machines you like?
Kravitz: Well, on the latest record that I just did… before I was me, I used to go by the name of Romeo Blue, and I never put anything out under that name. But I just made a record that reflects on those times, and I pulled out a lot of things I would’ve been messing with then: a mixture of real drums and then the first LinnDrum, the DMX and Rhythm King, the old machine like Sly [Stone] used to use.
Lacy: Now he had some good-ass drums. What gear you rocking with? What’s your setup?
Kravitz: I have a vast selection of vintage guitars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Lacy: You got the ’65 Strat?
Kravitz: I have Strats from the mid-’50s on up through ’73, stuff you would love. Luckily, I got into collecting vintage instruments in the early ’90s, when it was still affordable. That’s also when you used to be able to go to pawn shops, or you’d go to people’s houses and find sh-t, before this crazy high value was set. So I have a whole arsenal of Fender jazz basses, Fender Precisions, Rickenbackers, hollow- and semi-hollow body Gibsons, Les Pauls from ’79, Strats, acoustics — and then all the Clavinets, a great 1929 Steinway B, a Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, Rhodes and then a whole room full of vintage synths from the late ’60s on up through the ’80s.
Lacy: Oh, my God. That sounds like heaven. Goddamn it. We geeking out over music. Everybody’s probably going to be reading this like, “O…kayyy?”
Releasing a breakup album seems like a wild experience. The way you feel after a breakup is so intense, and by the time the album arrives, you probably don’t feel that way anymore, but now you have to talk about it.
Lacy: Man, I feel like for some reason, [your ex] can energetically feel when you’re done with the album, and then they come right back. There was a moment right after I finished, we tried again, and it didn’t work. So I was like, “Cool, I’m done. For real, I’m done this time.” But they be feeling that sh-t!
Kravitz: Mine helped me to get through it. Even just the process of making Mama Said, when [my daughter] Zoë’s mom, [Lisa Bonet], and I broke up, was rough. It was a dark f-cking time for me. Making that music got me through. I mean, I could barely function.
Lacy: Was that your worst breakup ever?
Kravitz: Yeah, man. That was my wife, you know? The mother of my child. But the beauty of it all was, after working through it for years, we became best friends, which was what we started as. We’d met each other, she had boyfriends, I had girlfriends, whatever. Inside, I was like, “I love this person so much, but I can’t tell her that because that’s not where she is — so I’ll take the friendship. It’s cool.” And we were living together as friends. I had my own room. Through living together, depending on each other and loving each other as people, one day, it just happened, and we didn’t even see it coming.
Lacy: That’s insane. I spent Thanksgiving with her once.
Kravitz: With Zoë’s mom? You had dinner with her?
Lacy: I helped her stir up the mashed potatoes. (Laughs.) Isn’t that wild? I feel like I’ve been in the family. I just haven’t met everybody yet.
Lenny, you made a song almost 30 years ago called “Rock and Roll Is Dead.” What’s the status now? What does it mean to be a rock star in 2022?
Kravitz: You tell me, Steve.
Lacy: I feel like a rock star is past a genre. A free person is a rock star, really. Somebody who’s making the choices nobody else wants to make: a genuine, authentic person who don’t give a damn. And when you play guitar, that’s a plus, too.
Who are your guitar GOATs?
Kravitz: A lot of the gods are the guys who play the least amount of notes. When you look at, say, Guitar Player magazine, it’s all about shredding and playing fast. But the guy who plays with James Brown and just goes, “Dun, dun, dun” for three hours and doesn’t move — they don’t celebrate those guys. It’s always the lead guys, and of course, there’s the obvious stuff: the Hendrixes, the Jimmy Pages, the Freddie Kings. But it’s also knowing what not to play, and when not to play, that gives you the space and the funk.
Lacy: Yes! They keep that flow. We be on the same sh-t, bro. I’ve been thinking a lot about function: in design, in clothes I buy, in music. If something’s there, why is it there, and does it need to be there? Sometimes, people send me songs they want me to get on, and I’m like, “What am I supposed to do with this? There’s sh-t all over the damn place. I have no space in my brain to write! You got a saxophone on this b-tch. Where do I fit in?”
Steve, are you saying “no” to a lot of things these days?
Lacy: I low-key got a kink for it. I love turning shit down. It makes me happy. I’d probably be so much richer if I was corny. I could be balling if I was corny. But it’s all right. I’m doing well for myself for not being corny.
Kravitz: And you can sleep at night, and you can pull your albums out 30 years from now and be cool with them.
Lacy: I’m not in a rush for anything. I’m grateful that I got to gradually grow everything. I feel similar to you, Lenny. I was making music with The Internet when I was 16, so pretty soon I’ll have been doing this for 10 years. I still feel fresh as ever. It took me a while, though. How was it, coming into your artistry? I don’t know if you played with people at first or if you had to transition from player to your own thing. What was that moment when you were like, “OK, I’m an artist”?
Kravitz: Since I played all the instruments, people would hire me to make demos for them, and I’d play everything and produce it. I was not intending on being a solo artist. I would’ve been happy playing guitar in a band, or drums, whatever. But when I moved in with Lisa, that was the first time I heard what my music was, and that was the music on Let Love Rule. Before that, I didn’t know what the f-ck I was doing. There was something very freeing about our relationship that showed me more of who I was that I didn’t understand, by seeing how she understood herself. And then the songs just started coming.
Lacy: I have to go back and listen to it now, with the context.
Steve, what was that moment for you?
Lacy: This album! Before, I thought of myself as a producer, so I just made sketches, and I was kind of in a rush to put stuff out. With this album, I was more intentional, more functional, more precise with what I wanted to say. But that was a personal process, too, getting clearer with myself. If you’re not precise in your words, that bleeds into all aspects of your life. Right now, I’m on this path of transparency. I used to speak in codes, but people can’t understand you when you talk like that. They feel left out. With this album, I wanted to say sh-t straight up — stuff that I would even be afraid to say to my friends or to myself. These days, I’m real open: Take it or leave it. If it don’t resonate, then it’s not for you, but I’m not going to feel less worthy of love because of that. We’re taught to do everything for validation in the world; you’ve got to do so much to feel like a human being worthy of any type of acknowledgment or connection. This album’s me in real time, figuring out all that stuff for myself.
You guys are both known as cool motherf-ckers. So — what’s cool?
Kravitz: You know what’s funny? If you ask my daughter, she’ll say I’m the goofiest motherf-cker you ever met. I think cool is just being who you are, whatever that is. If you’re confident in being authentically you, I can dig that. Any time somebody’s thirsty to try and be cool, you can smell it. Anything that’s fake is not sexy at all.
Lacy: Exactly. That’s how I feel, too.
Kravitz: But come live with my ass, and you’ll see what it really is. What you’d see there would not match the image you have of me at all.
Lenny, do you have any advice for Steve?
Kravitz: My only thing, which I didn’t do as well as I could have: Enjoy these moments right now. Enjoy your success, and I don’t mean the bullsh-t side of success. I mean doing your thing, the way you see it, and you’re making people happy … When it was happening for me, it was always, “What’s next?” I wish that I had spent a little more time being satisfied with those moments, so now I’m very aware of any little thing that I find as a success, which could be just waking up today. So enjoy your ride, man. It looks beautiful.
Lacy: I’m going to call you. I feel like we’ve got too much to talk about.