For music that drips with adolescent, hormone-fueled infatuation, Omar Apollo’s songs are notably free of the melodrama of teenagehood. “And you said I was your soulmate, but that was just a lie,” he bemoans on “Useless”—a highlight from his latest project Apolonio—before pivoting with a shrug: “It’s alright, we’re too young to be giving out advice.” Playful yet self-aware, Apollo, 23, knows how to navigate the peaks and valleys of youthful angst, lust, and carefree fun without ever taking himself too seriously.
Apollo’s triple-threat potential has always been part of the conversation surrounding his music: handsome and stylish, equipped with a malleable, multi-octave vocal range that scrapes Miguel-level heights, he’s nearly as talented a producer as he is a singer-songwriter. Apolonio’s sound, like that of 2018’s Stereo and 2019’s Friends, bridges the vulnerable funk of Daniel Caesar, the seductive atmosphere of Kali Uchis (who steals the show on Apolonio’s “Hey Boy”), and the warm solitude of Nostalgia, Ultra-era Frank Ocean. It’s not a new sound, nor is it particularly balanced, but across these nine songs, aided by Apollo’s undeniable charisma, Apolonio melts into something perfectly suited for the butterflies of a long-awaited kiss or the nostalgia of an old yearbook.
Like much of Apollo’s music, Apolonio pulses with yearning; what’s different here is Apollo’s comfort in directing it to men as well as women. His songwriting has opened up as a result. “Drive through Georgia 19 hours on vacation/I ain’t never left the state, man, I been waiting/and that pretty boy still hit me up on strange occasions,” he sings on “Kamikaze,” a piercing reflection on teenage heartbreak. But then the humor peeks through. “I ain’t really know you was freaky, though,” he sings moments later, his voice poking out of its monotone. “Ass round like Cheerios.”
Apollo’s take on queerness has always been sly and understated; there’s no doubt that questions about his sexuality, which he’s avoided addressing directly since he broke out, have made him more beguiling. But there’s no right way for a queer person to be queer—and hearing Apollo, on “Kamikaze,” remembering being hurt by a boy who moved on, or singing about boys, girls, and a crush on a boy who’s with a girl now on the bouncy bilingual opener “I’m Amazing,” it all feels honest and vulnerable, like moments of self-actualization that reduce the exhausting public obsession with other people’s sexuality to dust.
This isn’t to say he has it all figured out. Apolonio feels more like a collection of disparate sketches than a cohesive vision—jumping from Parliament-style funk and muted pop to rapping and Mexican corrido (on the exuberant origin story “Dos Uno Nueve,” sung in Spanish), it’s a reflection of Apollo’s own unbound energy, both giddy and unsure. He’s most in his comfort zone when he deepens an already established sound, like on lead single “Stayback,” a wet and sticky slow jam that has Apollo reaching for a Curtis Mayfield falsetto, over-enunciating and dramatically scrunching his voice up like George Clinton (the knockout remix even features Bootsy Collins). He strikes gold on “Useless,” which features guitar and songwriting from Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.; Apollo does his best Julian Casablancas impression on the verses before flooding the chorus with thwacking bass and flawless harmonies. It’s a clear homage to the Strokes that nonetheless feels distinctly new, and it works.
Apollo and his occasional co-producers (including Frank Ocean collaborator Michael Uzowuru, 21-year-old wunderkind Teo Halm, and hip-hop iconoclast DJ Dahi) sometimes struggle to keep that same level of focus throughout the project. “Want U Around,” featuring singer Ruel, is the type of flat funk imitation that “Stayback” manages to avoid. One of two tracks not at least co-produced by Apollo himself, “Bi Fren” forces Apollo into sounding like a groaning clone of Post Malone and Khalid over an anonymous beat, stripping him of his trademark quirk and taking the punch out of his wrenching vulnerability.
The more you listen to Apolonio, the more its unevenness comes to feel like an extension of Apollo himself, still growing, still curious. Yet for the first time in Apollo’s brief career, it’s not his potential that feels most thrilling, but rather the glimpses we’re getting of what’s already there; Apolonio undoubtedly stands on its own as his most fully realized work. Apollo’s music celebrates what was and what is, not what could be, and in a moment when the future feels catastrophic at best, there’s comfort in knowing that a few years ago, in a different reality, a teenaged Omar Apollo drove 19 hours to Georgia to see his crush for the last time.
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