For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 all next week. Before that, a tribute to the artist who crashed the mainstream for the first time in the biggest way this year: prodigiously talented alt-R&B maestro Steve Lacy.
After a monumental breakout year – dominating TikTok, scoring three Grammy nominations and topping the Billboard Hot 100 with his smash “Bad Habit” – Steve Lacy’s days of being best known as a member of R&B collective The Internet seem ages ago. “I feel like it was all a blur then,” he said to Rolling Stone in October of those early days. “Now I’m just being very careful with all of my choices, and I want everything to be meaningful.”
The Odd Future-associated group started in early 2011 with sultry crooner Syd, keyboardist Matt Martians, bassist Patrick Paige II, and drummer Christopher Smith. Lacy would join a couple years later, his guitar work giving the band their signature lo-fi haze, coating their loungy atmosphere. With two solid outings under their belt (Purple Naked Ladies, Feel Good), their stellar 2015 release Ego Death marked a turning point in their careers, converting them from mere Odd Future associates to a favorite of critics and self-described tastemakers. Particularly, it was Steve Lacy’s infectious production that accented Syd’s luscious vocal melodies and helped establish The Internet as one of the premier acts in R&B.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Sam Smith | No. 10: Nicki Minaj | No. 9: Future | No. 8: Jack Harlow | No. 7: Doja Cat | No. 6: Lizzo | No. 5: Drake | No. 4: Beyoncé | No. 3: Taylor Swift | No. 2: Harry Styles | No. 1: Bad Bunny
With their newfound success, it emboldened the group to pursue their own solo ventures. Recorded off of his iPhone at the time, Steve Lacy’s Demo showcased his raw instincts as a producer and singer. His boyish tone and sticky vocal layering caused records like “Ryd” and the hypnotic “Dark Red” to make Lacy into a playlist darling. Credits on albums for Mac Miller (Swimming), Solange (When I Get Home), Kendrick Lamar (DAMN.), and J. Cole (4 Your Eyez Only) fueled the music industry’s increasing fascination with raw lo-fi aesthetics and fuzzy, vibe-centric music and made him a hot commodity as a producer. In the meanwhile, he’d rejoin The Internet for their 2018 album Hive Mind and continue his solo aspirations, releasing his debut album Apollo XXI and a collection of loosies The Lo-Fis.
Lacy could’ve thrived for decades as a constantly in-demand producer and immovable streaming sensation, ravaging indie-adjacent playlists with every new release. “Mercury,” released in May as the lead single to his Gemini Rights album, signaled what seemed inevitable: Its bossanova flourishes, steady tempo, shrouded in bright squeals and occasionally claustrophobic layering made for a strange but fascinating single. It isn’t particularly loaded with hooks but it’s undeniably hypnotic, a free-falling lullaby that highlighted Lacy’s varied tastes. Nothing could’ve predicted the massive moment that was to follow for his next single, the inimitable “Bad Habit.”
One of the biggest forces governing pop music in the 2020s so far has been how quick and effective TikTok is in converting an underground staple into an artist with crossover potential. Even with Steve Lacy’s established audience, he wasn’t guaranteed the leap to pop stardom until “Bad Habit” – a decade-defining earworm — grew too undeniable on the platform for its ascent to be slowed. The punchiness of its guitars and its infectious “I wish I knew you wanted me” refrain blasted TikTok’s algorithm when it was released in June. It soundtracked the hopelessly romantic, the comedic, and the strikingly mundane across over 500,000+ videos. Radio shortly followed TikTok’s lead, and “Bad Habit” became an inescapable phenomenon.
There was an element of uncertainty to “Bad Habit,” as Lacy hadn’t felt very confident in his own songwriting. He told GQ in June, “I felt like I was in a slump. I had a bunch of dope ideas, but my writing? I didn’t know how I was going to approach this record. But I feel like [“Bad Habit”] was the one that was like, Okay, this is what we’re about to do.” But with the help of burgeoning R&B singer-songwriter Fousheé, who features on Gemini Rights’ “Sunshine” and sings the opening notes of “Bad Habit,” the album rises out of its stalemate and produces some wildly magnetic music.
Gemini Rights widened the scope of what a Steve Lacy album can sound like; it’s not too far removed from his dreamy, lo-fi origins but the drums are laid thicker, the synths saunter in its summer colors, and the guitars glaze over the album’s atmosphere. Critics praised the album for its luscious landscapes and focused storytelling. It debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, his best showing to date. Meanwhile, the explosion in popularity for “Bad Habit” opened lanes for additional Lacy’s songs to hit the Hot 100: 2017’s “Dark Red” finally debuted the charts five years after the fact, alongside the Gemini Rights-opening ballad “Static,” also a minor TikTok sensation.
Even with Lacy’s devout fanbase, none of this could’ve been predicted. As a product of Odd Future, it’s unsurprising that he made waves in music industry circles or reached teenage listeners who idolize Frank Ocean. But to dethrone proven superstar Harry Styles and his mammoth hit “As It Was” at No. 1 on the Hot 100 – the kind of chart feat even predecessors like Ocean and Tyler the Creator, in all their abundant successes, have yet to pull off – was a major feat, to say the least.
Lacy’s ensuing tour caused a massive turnout for one of the year’s hottest artists, another step in his superstardom. It wasn’t without controversy and frustrations: At a show in New Orleans, one of the audience members threw a disposable camera at him, to which Lacy responded, “Don’t throw shit on my f–king stage please!” breaking the camera and walking off. There’s footage of his concerts being met with an unnerving silence, fans only recalling a small portion of the hook on “Bad Habit.” It’s a reasonably disappointing response to an artist on the high of their life. None of this deterred Steve Lacy’s momentum though – the social media uproar and news headlines only amplified the attention to the tour, and showcased just how many people are now in Lacy’s corner.
Last month, a week before the Grammys nominated “Bad Habit” for best pop solo performance, song of the year and record of the year, he performed at Saturday Night Live. As 2022 dwindles down, “Bad Habit” and Gemini Rights sit comfortably amongst critics’ year-end lists. With how uncertain future success can be after a viral stretch on TikTok, it is Steve Lacy’s undeniable talent and devout fanbase that almost guarantees a spot in pop music’s inner circle if he chooses to follow its thread. Lacy has the potential to be the next guitar-toting sensation in a pop landscape desperately clawing for its next superstar.