As an artist, Ocean has offered a new take on the “sentimental” tradition that he referred to. Themes of love, sex, nostalgia, and loneliness were rendered in a classic kind of croon, but with an enigmatic, cliché-averse perspective. By the time of his 2016 masterpiece, Blond(e), Ocean had helped transform the sound of popular music into something hazier and more introspective, with ever more liquid boundaries between rapping and singing. That album’s achingly strange songs were governed not by pop structures but by emotional logic, and his lyrics often described feeling between. That he slipped between pronouns to describe the objects of his obsessions somehow felt both incidental and integral to that approach.
Influence is a tricky thing to define, and it’s too simplistic to say that many of the rising young men writing songs adjacent to hip-hop and R&B sound like Ocean, even if many of them really do seem to imitate him. What’s more important is they often appear to think like him. They stake their stardom on idiosyncrasy, vibes, and visions expressed in cohesive, album-length wholes and fascinating micro-moments rather than tidy songs. Ocean’s take on sexuality is becoming less unusual, too, with inevitable implications for the performance of masculinity in music. Queerness is not required for, nor does it ensure, a questing sensibility. But they often seem to go together.
The 21-year-old Compton guitarist and singer Steve Lacy sings with smoothness and casual swagger, but that’s as far as his sonic resemblance to Ocean goes. They’re affiliated with the same scene, though. A gifted producer, Lacy has contributed wandering, loopy tones as a member of the Grammy-winning R&B group The Internet—whose founder, Syd, was once the only openly gay member of Odd Future, the L.A. rap collective that Ocean was also part of. Lacy’s debut solo album, Apollo XXI, out last week, has the feel of a scrapbook or tone-poem collection, with songs that are pert, funky, and dappled with California light. It’s shaggy, yet it hangs together; it’s loose, yet detail-packed; and it lends itself to the backgrounds of barbecues or to close listening.
It’s also informed by queerness. Lacy identifies as bisexual and traces his awakening back to being kissed by a guy on New Year’s Eve 2017 (Lacy initially recoiled, but then came on to the friend and was rejected, according to his account). His music was relaxedly raunchy on his 2017 EP Steve Lacy’s Demo, but now it is so in a more omnidirectional way. There’s a “girl” on his lead single, “N Side,” whose chorus repeatedly asks, “Is it inside?” But for the breeze-in-hair anthem “Hate CD,” he yearns for “his affection.” The “Outro Freestyle” has Lacy rapping, “You be talking ’bout the pussy, pussy, you don’t hit it / You be sucking dick, you be, you be sucking dick.” Given the context, what might seem like a homophobic diss becomes something more ambiguous. So unbothered is Lacy’s delivery throughout that it’s easy to miss the ways in which he’s playing with gender. But why should he be bothered? It’s 2019, and his generation is, in greater and greater numbers, ditching the binary.