Gen Z Has Found Its Guitar Hero

Steve Lacy’s genre-blending hit, “Bad Habit,” taps into a wistful, online-inflected vibe.

The musician Steve Lacy
David Levene / Guardian / eyevine / Redux

This has been a strange year for popular music. In the winter, a chaotically catchy cha-cha medley from a Disney movie took the title of No. 1 song in the world. Then a 37-year-old anthem from one of music’s great oddballs, Kate Bush, did the same.

Right now, another singular tune is making a surprising climb up the charts, though this time the hit also represents a familiar occurrence: the breakout moment for a promising talent. The artist is Steve Lacy, a 24-year-old guitarist and singer from Compton, California. The song is “Bad Habit,” which simultaneously sounds like something the Beach Boys might have demoed in the ’60s, Prince might have covered in the ’80s, and college rock radio might have played in the ’90s—yet it probably could have blown up only today.

Lacy has had buzz in the music industry for a while now. After becoming a music nerd in childhood thanks to the video game Guitar Hero, he joined the soon-to-be-Grammy-nominated R&B group The Internet when he was only 16. Soon after, he collaborated with Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Vampire Weekend. But his sound distinguishes him more than his CV. Lacy makes soulful, smart stoner rock with relaxed rhythms and subtle melodies. This is vibes music, excellent for playing in the background—until listeners realize how deeply Lacy’s craftsmanship has sunk into them.

“Bad Habit,” a single from Lacy’s second album, Gemini Rights, is clearly hitting people on multiple levels. Released at the end of June, the track has reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the same publication’s streaming chart. Hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos use the song (or sped-up remixes of it), but no one meme dominates. Some users set “Bad Habit” to mundane arts and crafts. Others film themselves displaying the emotions Lacy sings about. In one video skit, a guy nods along to the song, and then finds another version of himself crying to it.

Given this popularity, a first-time listener might be surprised at how scruffy the song sounds. Drums clunk lackadaisically while Lacy’s guitar riff lurches up and down, evoking a car engine struggling to turn over. Lacy sings a bit like a nervous kid at a school pageant, both pining and flat. Yet intriguing sound effects and rich vocal harmonies (some provided by the singer Fousheé) add texture throughout. The instruments eventually cut out for 10 seconds of unaccompanied crooning—before a new groove, built on a peppy electronic rhythm, marches the song out the door.

The back-and-forth-and-somewhere-else music suits Lacy’s words. The chorus, “I wish I knew you wanted me,” is a bit of genius: a seven-word tragedy in the subjunctive, a double entendre of regret and hope, a knot of desire about desire. The verses tell of yearning for someone unattainable, and then attaining them—yet this is no fairy tale. At times Lacy sounds shy (“Thought you were too good for me, my dear”) and sweet (of two lovers, “It’s biscuits, it’s gravy”). At others, he’s kinky (“Can I bite your tongue?”) and cruel (“Now that you’re back, I can’t decide … if you’re invited”).

The album title Gemini Rights hints that Lacy’s mercurial sensibility is set by the stars—and celebrates how central that sensibility is to him. Hardly the show-off that Guitar Hero might have trained him to be, Lacy uses his instrumental expertise to smudge the lines between warm and sad, comforting and strange. The lineage of Black soul music, threading through doo-wop and D’Angelo, is omnipresent in his work, but so is fuzzed-out, emotionally slippery indie rock such as that of Pixies. In many cases, his songs’ best passages are outros, in which tossed-off riffs and refrains coalesce for a slow-cresting high.

Perhaps his brand of ambivalent prettiness suits our era. In the past few years, Lacy and some contemporaries—Omar Apollo, Cuco, Rex Orange County—have given the impression of a hazy-headed, rock-and-R&B subgenre coming to maturity following Frank Ocean’s breakthroughs of the early and mid-2010s. This sound is, among other things, useful: ready-made wistfulness to soundtrack last weekend’s montages on social media. Lacy’s blend of lyrical earnestness and crassness also feels rather young and online, the expression of someone with a lot of feelings and a lot of attitude. “Gave you a chance and some dopamine,” he sings on “Sunshine,” a highlight from Gemini Rights. “Safe to say, after me you peaked.”

Lacy is also, like many members of his generation, queer, with songs serenading both men and women. A case can be made that sexuality informs the category-blending sound that is making him a star, but identity labels aren’t really the point of his appeal. “Bad Habit,” certainly, doesn’t need to mention any particular gender to show the way that a new cohort can rewrite old scripts. The bad habit Lacy sings about is biting his tongue, closeting his feelings—a behavior that, with each passing year, seems less fashionable.