Steve Lacy on Becoming a Chart-Topper: ‘I Didn’t Have to Dim My Light’

Steve Lacy is one of those feel-good-about-music-again success stories, so it’s no wonder he just picked up four Grammy nominations, including record and song of the year for his multiweek No. 1 pop smash “Bad Habit,” as well as recognition for best progressive R&B album for his full-length breakout, “Gemini Rights.” (He’d surely be a leading contender for best new artist, too, if he hadn’t been disqualified from contention for that for previously getting a Grammy nom as a member of the group the Internet, when he was just 17.)

Variety spoke with him for the annual Hitmakers issue while he was bypassing a couple of tour dates to accept a last-minute invitation to be the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”

There are a lot of people from older generations that, besides loving your music themselves, are very happy that young people are into it — feeling like it gives them hope that something that feels a little more real can still break through with younger people who never even experienced classic R&B and some of the stuff you bring in.

There’s been these legends, icons, whose kids bring them to my shows. So on tour we’ve had the random-est motherfuckers: We had Akon at a show, because of his daughter, and Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Dave Chappelle came, because of their kids — but they’re also enjoying it too. So I do see that happening, with the traditions of real… I don’t even want to say “real,” because I don’t want to discredit other music. But I think music with real instruments is something that I get to present to kids now. And that’s really amazing because I had that, but I definitely thought it was gonna get lost, and I got discouraged a lot. We’re in the land of the 808 and hi-hat, man, so I didn’t think there was a place for me, even. So I love the fact that I get to do this and that opens way more doors for kids to express themselves and pick up the instrument and just have fun.

Your songs have topped the pop, R&B and alternative rock charts — something that never happened before, in that combination, simultaneously. That made chart history.

It’s really affirming. Because I’ve been playing with a bunch of different types of music for years, and my influences are vast. I’ve always been like, “Don’t box me.” Even my first project had a rock song and an R&B song and an almost punk song. There’s been moments where I’m doubting if there’s even a place for this, and should I be more cohesive? Should I stick to one type of song or one genre? So it’s beautiful to get acknowledged for all of it and realize that, damn, I didn’t have to change what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to dim my light.

Do you ever stop to think very much about like why emotionally and lyrically this music is connecting? And does it ever strike you as ironic that you have this incredibly successful music with music that kind of comes out of a breakup, out of loneliness or doubting at times? Or does that seem kind of inevitable in a way?

I think in a way it does feel inevitable, because I think something like a breakup is one of the most vulnerable things that everyone goes through. Just plain feelings — just the sadness, frustration, curiosity, whatever you want to call it — I say inevitable because that’s something that we all go through collectively, romantic ones specifically. There is not a race or position of power or a hierarchy to what makes you better at a romantic relationship than anyone else, you know?

Some artists, if they get in that mode about writing about a breakup, are lyrically kind of out for revenge a little bit. That doesn’t seem like you — it seems reflective.

Yeah. I mean, that’s how I kind of write in my journals, too. It’s not accusatory — it’s more like, damn, what was my place in this? What can I learn? Where’s the punchline in this moment? It was kind of writing, like, jokes too; I wanted it to be kind of funny. I didn’t want like a “Fuck you, I’m sad! Everybody leave me alone.” Because heartbreak, for me, I feel like it opens me up rather than closes me up. So I was like, OK, how do we get this music out that feels like how I process things?

You’ve talked about this album a lot in terms of intentionality, in a way that you didn’t with your previous projects. Because you had thought of yourself more as a producer, maybe really going for it as an artist almost seemed too ambitious or something, and you referred to things you did earlier as sketches — but then you had a change in attitude. It comes across in so many ways, from, on the business level, signing with a major (RCA), but also just at the basic production level really wanting to take everything seriously, go for the best sounds and, and not live with the iPhone ethos forever. Both approaches are really valid to a lot of people. But the intentionality was something that sounds like you almost had trouble coming to grips with for a while. Was there kind of a eureka moment for you where something turned on in you, where you kind of realized what you needed to go for that make you successful, but also feed your spirit creatively?

I had a car accident, actually, in 2020, and I think it was a wake-up call in some ways. And the message was: stop playing. I think it really gave me a second to just take a step back and just observe everything that’s happened over the years. What am I still holding onto that I need to let go of? It was a spiritual thing that hit me and was like: Oh, OK. I’ve got to step back and look at how I started, who I’ve always been as a kid, the relationships I have with certain people, the work that I’ve done. And I looked at all these things to come to a realization of: I’m running away from my own divinity by just playing with music, or these sketches, not taking it so seriously. I’m in my own way, almost.

And I felt like I was hitting a wall, trying to do old things, like the sketches in my home studio. It felt like my head was at the ceiling, and I wanted to fly. And I needed that ceiling to just move out of my way.

So I started this process of telling the truth, with honesty and transparency in my life. and then I was like, OK, like I want to go into the studio. When I found that flow, I was like, OK, this is where I need to be right now. And it felt so amazing. That was kind of the eureka moment. But for a while I couldn’t let go and I was really sad about it, that I couldn’t go back to “Steve Lacey’s demo days.” Because that was my first taste of success, you know — Grammy-nominated at 17 and all these things. I didn’t know how to process success at that age. For a long time, I was just on the go, so I didn’t have time to really process these things, and I wanted to go back to that period when no one knew what I was gonna come with, or no one cared. I wanted that back in a way, but also I knew I couldn’t get it back, if that makes sense. So after the accident happened, it gave me a chance to be like, OK, I need to move forward. It was sad for me. but I had to get over it, and I finally let that go and then I was  — boom — in my new process.

Your tour was selling out as soon as “Bad Habit” took off, and some of your old fans complained about these new kids coming in who only know you from TikTok, while they couldn’t get seats. Some of them were imagining you must hate being so popular all of a sudden, with this new audience that comes and screams out the hook but doesn’t necessarily know your history.

I think the venues that we chose were the natural progression from what we did in the past. My whole team kind of undershot, because no one expected this acclaim to happen so fast. We had to adjust, and we still upgraded certain venues, but I guess it still wasn’t big enough. We’re at this midpoint where it’s the transition from the rooms I’m playing now to the bigger ones. It’s not completely taken over by these new people. It is a huge surge in younger people, I will say. But the narrative that I think people are owning online is not the case of what’s actually going on in my shows, you know? There’s still devoted fans that sing everything at the shows as well, but the certain clip that people see make it seem like that’s the only fan that might show.

Do you mean the clip where this girl screams out kind of a dumb comment during a brief pause, and you tell her to be quiet? That seemed hilarious, with sharp comment timing in your rejoinder, right as you go back into the music. But people thought you were angry.

There’s a huge comic portion of my show. Like, I work on jokes and stuff. I’m kind of getting a kick out of like people’s reactions online. I think if you know me, you know my humor is dry and sarcastic, and just childish. So it’s funny to see these people interpret what I mean to be doing, when I’m like, no, it’s literally like just that — it’s funny.

So you don’t actually hate your newfound fame, like some of your longtime fans suppose.

I really am having a lot of fun… And I’m just grateful every day that I get to be myself.