WASHINGTON — Although he has found himself on the fast track to stardom, Steve Lacy is a big believer in taking things slowly. The artist’s most famous song, “Bad Habit,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this fall and is nominated for record and song of the year at the Grammys, is a prime example.
Lacy spent nearly a year making it, incrementally adding new segments and textures, pulling it down from the shelf and putting it back up again. Its improbable-seeming transitions — from post-punk jangle to boy-band crooning to hip-hop drum loops — are the source of the track’s infectious vitality. A less patient process would have produced a different song, and a different outcome.
“It took months of listening to it, figuring out what was missing,” Lacy said recently, in an interview at a hotel overlooking the Washington Monument. “I wasn’t sure about that song for the longest time, and then one day it was like, OK, here it is.”
“Bad Habit” went viral on TikTok, where the song’s hooky refrain (“I wish I knew/I wish I knew you wanted me”) appears in more than 700,000 videos. Lacy’s second album, “Gemini Rights,” released in July, cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, with its hit song racking up nearly 485 million streams on Spotify alone. In October, he embarked on a sold-out, 40-date international tour; the next month, he performed on “Saturday Night Live.”
On a brief tour break in December, Lacy, 24, was in town to be feted at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He has model proportions — seen this spring in a Marc Jacobs campaign — and arrived for our interview in a fully zipped black leather motorcycle jacket and black leather pants that spoke as loudly as anything on his album. His generally soft voice dissolved into a whisper when compelled to say anything that might make him sound the way that he looked, which is to say like a rock star.
Lacy is on the cusp of the kind of fame that tests a young artist’s character. A year ago, he was an independent singer, songwriter and producer with a modest following, known mostly for his work with bigger collaborators, including Solange, Kendrick Lamar and Vampire Weekend. Now, his name appears on Billboard charts and Grammy ballots next to those of Harry Styles, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. The safety of relative anonymity is a fast-fading memory, and each step toward the celebrity he is becoming could mean either the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.
“It’s cool to have your music connect with so many people, but it’s terrifying at the same time,” Lacy said. “Everyone has an opinion about you, but they don’t really know who you are.”
Despite his youth, Lacy is essentially a late bloomer among his particular cohort of post-streaming pop music insurgents. He got his start as a songwriter more than seven years ago, as a member of the Los Angeles-based alternative R&B collective the Internet, an offshoot of the rap conglomerate Odd Future. He was 16 at the time and a classmate of Jameel Bruner, then the Internet’s keyboardist and the younger brother of the eclectic bassist Thundercat.
Lacy was born and raised in Compton, Calif., and began playing guitar when he was 10, the same year that his father died. His stepfather noticed his obsession with the video game Guitar Hero and bought him a Squier Stratocaster. Lacy’s mother, a nurse who once had her own dreams of becoming a singer (she and Lacy’s three sisters sing backup on both of his albums) sent him to George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles to study in its noted jazz band.
Lacy met Bruner in the band and was soon devoting every spare moment to music. In addition to daily classes, he and Bruner would stop by the band room before school, after school and during lunch to jam. Their teacher, Emerson Cardenas, remembers Lacy as a musical “sponge” with a distinctive sense of fashion.
“Everyone else would be wearing Jordans and Steve would show up in penny loafers and a cardigan,” Cardenas said. “He was very sophisticated, even as a freshman. But he wasn’t ever outspoken or seeking the spotlight. He was extremely humble, like he didn’t have anything to prove.”
Around the time that he joined the Internet, Lacy decided to pursue music full time. He was nominated for his first Grammy in 2015 — while still a senior at Washington Prep — for the group’s breakthrough album, “Ego Death,” which credits Lacy as an executive producer. His mother, Valerie, said he made a shrewd argument for delaying college that invoked her would’ve-been singing career.
“He said, ‘Mom, your mistake was that you put a percentage in Plan B that you should have put into Plan A,’” Valerie said. “‘I want to try putting everything into Plan A.’”
After “Ego Death,” Lacy began working on his own music, encouraged by Syd and Matt Martians of the Internet. He hadn’t planned on being a solo artist — his main passions were playing guitar and making beats, often on a disintegrating iPhone — but assembled six short but evocative songs that he called “Steve Lacy’s Demo,” released in 2017.
The music was at once innovative and highly recognizable, borrowing from and recontextualizing the soulful lust of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, the slacker mysticism of Mac DeMarco and Kurt Vile, and the alien funk of Pharrell Williams and André 3000. The collection’s standout single, “Dark Red,” revealed Lacy’s talent for highly quotable lyrics (the opening line, “Something bad’s about to happen to me,” is Charlie Kaufman meets Charlie Brown) and became a sleeper hit online, with nearly 700 million streams on Spotify to date.
Lacy began attracting the attention of a wider sphere of artists in the Los Angeles area. The producer DJ Dahi, who worked alongside him during sessions for the Kendrick Lamar album “Damn.” and Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride,” said he was impressed by Lacy’s apparently effortless ability to play music in any genre.
“He’s like a walking encyclopedia,” DJ Dahi said. “He’ll make a song that’s just him being him and it will still have something for everyone.”
Lacy independently released his debut solo album, “Apollo XXI,” in 2019, shading in the adventurous terrain he outlined on “Steve Lacy’s Demo.” But it wasn’t until “Gemini Rights” that he felt he had found his voice as an artist.
“I always want to stand behind my music, rather than in front of it,” Lacy said, taking time to choose his words. “But this time I really pushed myself to be more assertive and just trust in my decisions.”
The breakout success of “Bad Habit,” which Lacy described as his most successful attempt yet at putting all of his selves into a single song, validated his instincts. Written after a breakup with a boyfriend, its stylistic promiscuity mirrors his own journey to self-acceptance.
“It started out as this really clean, alternative rock song,” Lacy said. He added the serrated hip-hop percussion as both a narrative exclamation point and an affirmation of his Blackness, which he characterized by using an unprintable word.
Although the song’s virality transformed his career, it also triggered one of Lacy’s greatest fears: that he would only ever be known as a one-hit wonder. That anxiety increased after a video taken at one of his concerts showing fans failing to recall the lyrics to the song’s second verse traveled widely on social media. Lacy said he was initially upset by the incident, and by the way some media outlets and online commentators tried to portray it as a broad indictment of his popularity. But he said he ultimately recognized the episode as part of the inevitable price of fame.
“At a certain point, you become like a commodity, and there are things about that that are annoying,” he said. “But I like my music and I know that I have so many more ideas, so I’m not too in my feelings about it.”
After our interview, Lacy, his mother, and his best friend, Alan Lear, visited the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The entire Lacy clan was in town for a gala commemorating the opening of the new exhibition “Entertainment Nation,” which includes an iPhone Lacy used to make some of his earliest music as one of dozens of historic cultural artifacts.
Wearing a different leather jacket (vintage Celine) and rectangular eyeglasses, he posed next to the phone as guests including Gloria Estefan and the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, browsed displays housing the original Kermit the Frog puppet, a fedora Harrison Ford wore as Indiana Jones and one of Prince’s electric guitars, among other cult objects.
The museum first contacted Lacy about the phone in 2017, after one of its curators read about it in Wired magazine. Lacy said the exhibition, which will run for at least 20 years, had made him more excited than any of his many mounting accolades.
“This would have happened whether ‘Bad Habit’ blew up or not,” he said, clearly delighted. “It feels like pure alignment.”