Steve Lacy’s “4Real,” which the polymath guitarist released on SoundCloud earlier this month, is a stew of delicious production; it’s got gushing bass, teenage quirk, and the sweet urgency of young love. The song’s borders are intentionally blurred—thematically, structurally—but what Lacy feels is unmistakably obvious: the connection he has to his unnamed partner is no illusion. “We kiss, we hug, we dance and fight/We laugh, make up, then we go all night,” he sings, before diving headfirst into the hook. “It’s such a thrill to love you when it’s real.”
It’s a love letter with punk spirit, and functions as something of an informal admission to the is-he-isn’t-he curiosities surrounding Lacy’s sexuality (without all the high drama others have placed on it). If you want to make something, Lacy told WIRED in April, “grab whatever you have and just make it.” With its echoes of Prince and Bilal, “4Real” confirms Lacy’s decidedly anti-pop undertaking: that a song can, and should, be a nebulous configuration—sometimes with no center, no formal structure, or even a skillful conclusion.
Lacy’s inventiveness is well earned. As a member of Los Angeles-based R&B outfit The Internet, he helped executive-produce the group’s Grammy-nominated 2015 album Ego Death, has collaborated with Kendrick Lamar (“PRIDE”) and Kali Uchis (“Only Girl”), and in February released his 6-track “song series” Steve Lacy’s Demo to much acclaim. The solo collection’s unifying sentiment was its tightly controlled production; at a slender 13 minutes in its entirety, its songs never felt like they might swiftly veer off the tracks. But “4Real” is a different kind of creative proposition for Lacy—it’s raucous and reckless, with hints of madness. It’s a little like falling in love.
When the song suddenly cuts short—Lacy’s own doing, a move reflective of the freeform ethos SoundCloud often incubates—it doesn’t matter. His intention is not a neat resolution, or even a resolution at all, but to unsettle the assumptions of the listener. The DNA of music is meant to be fussed with, and Lacy disbands all formalities with “4Real.” What you think matters, doesn’t. In his hands, there are no rules for true songcraft—and the end result, wherever one lands, is all the more rewarding because of its abruptness, its surprise.
In recent years, artists like Frank Ocean, Young M.A, and iLoveMakonnen have ushered queer narratives in popular music, especially within hip-hop and R&B. With “4Real,” Lacy outlines his own narrative, however indistinct. When he uploaded the song to SoundCloud, the track image featured a pixelated photo of him (presumably) and another person (presumably a white guy) in affectionate embrace; the two look as if they might be kissing. “Is anyone gonna question if that is him and a guy? not that it matters but it would be cute,” one user commented. To which another responded: “I just noticed the same thing. Whatevs, homie’s doin his thing.” Lacy’s intention had come full circle—that beauty can be formed from an undefined place.