On Tuesday night, Dej Loaf took the stage in a mink. Or fox, or sable—whatever it was, it was fluffy fur, the age-old symbol, especially in hip-hop, that you're finally rich. The 23-year-old wore it with a flair that was unmistakably of Detroit, the flashy style of her hometown, accessorized with her omnipresent leather MCM bucket hat, round glasses, and a bottle of Hennessey. She brought her mother onstage, too, and with her boys all lined up on the stage behind her, she burst into "I Don't Know," a contemplative track from her just-released mixtape Sell Sole with the confidence and command of a person who knows she belongs there.
It was her first performance in New York City, her first after the release of "Try Me," her sorrowful, sing-songy lullaby about murking dudes out. "Try Me" is her breakout track, a hit with increasing momentum; it intrigued and threatened with the perceived dissonance between what she was saying ("I'ma get his whole muthafuckin family… Fuck around and Ima catch a body") and how she was saying it (sweetly, breathily, quietly). It sparked the bidding war, inspired Drake to cosign, got her more shine, landed her here.
With "I Don't Know," she let us in on how life's been since then, and it was just as menacing: "All these lames keep acting like they know us/ fake rappers, we gon' pull you off your tour bus/ I don't wanna do no songs or do no features wid'em/I ain't no groupie I don't wanna take no pictures either." With one succinct lyric, she summed up the bullshit conundrum of being a woman in a male-dominated space, without having to go too hard on it, or to be too straightforward: one of Dej Loaf's best traits is her often-laidback, devil-may-care delivery, like she's rapping with her feet up on the dash. (An Aside: Wack interviewers are already asking her whether she is a lesbian and calling her an "ambisexual" dresser—I guess because she wears pants, and raps about boning dudes?!—and shamefully calling her brother/stylist Desa a "crossdresser," apparently because it is 1980 and there aren't tons of resources around to get familiar with how to not be totally offensive. Ugh.)
Mink or no, Dej Loaf says she is, in fact, finally rich, after a major label bidding war that landed her a deal with Columbia Records. She told Bullett, "I've been rich. Mentally I was always there. I just didn't have it liquid."
If we had a dollar for every young rapper who signed a major-label deal off the strength of one viral track and then faded into oblivion, we'd be rich, too. But something about Dej Loaf is different. It's not just about the success of "Try Me," or its official remix with West Coast hitmaker Ty $ and once-and-future queen of New York Remy Ma, which was released this week. It's not even about Dej Loaf's stage confidence and delivery, the way she owned the stage like a born performer, although that is a factor. Dej Loaf is different because she has an emotional and topical depth that is dazzling, yet her voice has a mysterious quality and an inherent mournfulness. "Try Me" is a mean track, but the thing that really sticks is how many different emotions she runs through in the course of it, almost like it's stream of consciousness. She'll "turn a bitch to macaroni," she says, but also mourns her cousins who have been murdered or incarcarated; she brags that her suitors have no chill ("fuck around gave him my number/he won't stop callin") but also that her "mind full of money, heart full of demons." There's a post-OVO trend in rap and R&B right now in which meandering, soft, minor-key, and dreamy music prevails, and Dej Loaf is that but she is not of that—she hits on whatever strange zeitgeist that presently demands thug lullabies, but she transcends it as well, and she'll be good after it passes.
The mixtape is like that, too, an amalgam of songs that show Dej is a multidimensional person—tracks about wanting to make money to buy her mother a house, tracks about having really good Henny sex with the man she loves, tracks about going to the club with her squad, tracks about being confident enough to fulfill her dreams—in a way that young rappers don't often know to show. An emotional parallel might be Kendrick, who knows how to detail his complex experiences through deft lyricism; Dej isn't as much of a wordsmith, as they say, but she can convey similar emotion through plainness, honesty, and intent. "Don't let nobody tell it that it ain't you," she sings on the opening lines of "Never." "Chase your dreams, my baby!"
The only accompaniment is a piano, and her own harmonies rendered in multicolor. She sounds like she's smiling when she sings, "Me and all my niggas, we gon' make it."
Alternately, on the future club hit "On My Own," over a hulking trap beat, she sing-raps, "came up on my own, didn't need no-body," as both an assertion of independence and an illustration of how the streets are isolating. Like "Try Me," it is hard as fuck.
Dej Loaf brings a desperately needed femininity and diversity of experience to the street narrative that, perhaps, bests even the past work of her collaborator Remy Ma, and with her Chicago counterpart Tink—who released an excellent remix of "Try Me" herself—they are the three most promising women on the emerging rap scene right now.
On the incredible "Problem," featuring GT and Oba Rowland, she doesn't rap so much as lope over a chasm of slow bass, so casual with her dismissal that she barely wastes her breath doing so: "I know what the problem is/ I'll find out where yo mama live and buy the crib/ I don't got no kids/I'm seedless/ baby you thirsty, you teethin." Two verses later, she is invoking maternal advice, cunnilingus, and murking someone out in the same beat: "My grandma told me that talk is cheap/so don't talk to me pussy/ open up your mouth you gotta talk to this pussy/I be gone off that Henn/might just off me a pussy."
At Santos Party House in New York, she ran through Sell Sole tracks and worked the stage, and though the songs weren't too familiar to most of the audience—the mixtape was released only hours before—she was an intriguing enough performer to keep everyone's interest. But everyone was certainly waiting for "Try Me," the hardest song out, and they were not disappointed: she brought out not only Remy Ma for her verse, but Jadakiss and Styles P made an appearance as well, both as a way to boost their present relevance as well as a proper NYC torch-passing to a young new artist from the Midwest. The club went up on a Tuesday (ILOVEMAKONNEN was in the building, incidentally), and a crowd of equal amounts women and dudes in a town that doesn't easily excite sang along with glee, eager to anoint this young woman as that new shit. Dej Loaf's star is rising and there's no ceiling in sight.