How Steve Lacy Scored the No. 1 Song in the Country With “Bad Habit”
In a June 2021 episode of FX’s comedy series Dave, a music producer named Elz (played by Odd Future’s Travis “Taco” Bennett) snorts coke in a bathroom while telling Dave (Lil Dicky) that he’s been working with Steve Lacy, to which Dave asks, “Who?”
Elz responds, “See, you’re just not in on shit, you’re more like surface level.” At the time, it was a perfect inside-baseball music industry joke: Elz is an up-and-coming producer starting to taste real success; Steve Lacy was the kind of name that wouldn’t register with casual music fans, but a hip, rising producer would be ecstatic to work with.
That scene’s punch line wouldn’t quite land today. Around the time the episode aired, Steve Lacy was busy in a New York studio working on “Bad Habit”: This week it’s the new Number 1 song in America. If you’ve turned on the radio, opened TikTok, or browsed the most popular DSP playlists this summer, you’ve certainly heard “Bad Habit” by now.
It’s one of the more unlikely hits in recent years. First off, there’s nothing specifically throwback-to-the-‘80s about it, like Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” NIcki Minaj’s Rick James-sampling “Super Freaky Girl,” or this year’s most unexpected smash, the reemergence of an actual ‘80s hit, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God).”
“Bad Habit,” with its mix of R&B and indie pop sensibilities, feels like it could have been released in any era of music, and few songs currently on the charts sound like it. It’s groovy and melancholy, the lyrics are filled with yearning and regret, and Lacy’s guitar strings whirl and wane. It’s a despondent anthem that remarkably manages to fit into everyone’s Instagram story montage. Just how did this song from an artist who’s always been more “cool” than “popular” reach the top in the charts?
First, the bio: Steve Lacy is a 24-year-old, half-Black, half-Filipino, bisexual, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer born and raised in Compton, Los Angeles. While in high school, he joined the Odd Future-affiliated band The Internet and executive produced their Grammy-nominated 2015 album, Ego Death. Though it didn’t win an award, Lacy attended the show and casually went to school the next day. The 17-year-old was still anonymous to many of his classmates. “I would play gigs and then just go back to school,” he recalled in an interview.
After graduating, he worked with everyone from Solange to Vampire Weekend to Kali Uchis to Blood Orange, as well as rappers like Kendrick Lamar, YG, and J. Cole. Lacy wasn’t even particularly interested in pursuing a solo career until his Internet bandmates started pursuing their own and suggested he do the same. His first solo offering was a 2017 EP called Steve Lacy’s Demo, a project he produced, sang, and arranged mostly on his iPhone (he broke down the process in a viral TEDxTeen talk). His second album, 2019’s Apollo XXI, also was Grammy-nominated, though it still didn’t make him a household name.
So how did “Bad Habit” finally blow up? Two important things happened to Lacy after Apollo XXI that set the table for “Bad Habit.” First, Lacy signed to a major label, RCA Records, home to Doja Cat, SZA, Rex Orange County, and most importantly, Fousheé. Second, in the summer of 2021, a song from Steve Lacy’s Demo called “Dark Red” went viral on TikTok.
Much like “Bad Habit,” the viral clip of “Dark Red” finds Lacy brooding with dejection as he sings, “Might be so sad, might leave my nose running/I just hope she don’t wanna leave me/Don’t you give me up, please don’t give up/Honey, I belong with you, and only you, baby.” “Dark Red” has soundtracked over 100,000 TikToks (a sped-up version of it is also popular). It’s also Lacy’s most streamed song on Spotify with nearly 600 million plays (“Bad Habit” has about half as many so far).
While “Dark Red” was belatedly taking off on TikTok, Lacy was working on his next album. He had the title Gemini Rights (a satirical take on the phrase “gay rights”) already in mind but was having a crisis of confidence in his writing. He was also processing a breakup with his boyfriend of seven months. Unlike his previous projects, Lacy opened himself up to collaboration and worked in a real studio where he connected with his labelmate, Fousheé. The New Jersey R&B/soul singer—whose song “Deep End” was also the basis for Sleepy Hallow’s surprise 2020 hit “Deep End Freestyle”—gave Lacy the boost he needed.
“She’ll never admit that, but she really, really helped,” said Lacy, to Highsnobiety. “I was sitting there with so much doubt, like, ‘What am I even doing? What am I even saying?’ I was just in a dark hole, creatively. And she would say, ‘Dude, you’re fine. You’re a great songwriter. You’ve got the hard part done.’ Then we started writing together, and our chemistry was so easy!”
Fousheé, whose vocals open “Bad Habit,” added an indelible touch to the song, giving it the kind of texture Lacy strived for with Gemini Rights. But she wasn’t the only person who helped bring the track home. Tyler, The Creator also played a minor but vital part in the song’s chorus, helping transform it into an earworm. “At first it was, ‘I wish I knew you/I wish I knew you wanted me,’” explained Lacy to Billboard. “And then he was like, ‘It’d actually be more memorable if you cut that word [‘you’] out,’ so shout out to Tyler.”
That small change might have more to do with why the song took off than any other part of it. The lyric “I wish I knewww” has a chewiness and stickiness, like a big bite of a candy bar with more nougat than you thought. It plays in your head all day, you feel it stuck to the back of your teeth in the evening.
“Bad Habit” also opened the door to the rest of the album, as Lacy told GQ earlier this year. “Prior to this moment, 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 this song was the one that was like, Okay, this is what we’re about to do.”
The song officially came out a few weeks before Gemini Rights dropped on July 15. By the time the album came out, the song was a streaming hit, thanks in part to the familiarity fans gained through “Dark Red.” Much like that song, and basically any hit songs these days, “Bad Habits” got a boost from TikTok. A clip of the hook has soundtracked half a million videos on the platform, with one video demonstrating that the song sounds good sped-up, slowed down, and reversed. The sped-up version, which has been used in over 100,000 videos as well, got so popular Lacy that released it as a standalone song.
By August, “Bad Habit” became a crossover hit on radio, too, and became a staple of the Top 10, finally hitting number one when the Harry Styles’ “As It Was” fever finally broke.
The popularity of “Bad Habit” is carrying over to Lacy’s other songs. “Dark Red” is currently in the Top 20 of Spotify’s USA chart of the most-played songs. “Dark Red” also landed on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the first time two weeks ago and peaked at No. 79 this week. The song right below it? Lacy’s “Static,” another song from Gemini Rights. If either of those songs become a Top 40 hit, Steve Lacy may well become a household name before the year is over.
Lacy’s success underscores just how much impact Odd Future has had in the decade after they broke out as rebellious shitposters. The longing that makes “Bad Habit” so relatable is indebted to works like Tyler, The Creator’s Grammy award-winning IGOR and Frank Ocean’s opus Blonde. Tyler and Ocean are both generational talents, critically-acclaimed weirdos who challenged conventions. But they never really made radio records that burned up the charts. And now, The Internet’s guitarist has something that Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean, or even The Internet’s lead vocalist Syd has never had: a bona fide radio hit and chart smash.
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