When a rap song bubbles up out of nowhere and takes over the world, people try to figure out how it happened, and you can usually retrofit some kind of narrative. ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday” didn’t go supernova until Drake jumped on it. People might’ve given “No Flex Zone” a chance because Rae Sremmurd were proteges of the super-producer Mike Will Made-It. Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” had the insta-viral dance. Those are all good songs, but the simple goodness of a song rarely seems to be enough to cross over. With Dej Loaf’s “Try Me,” though, the only hook is the hook itself: A murmured murder threat, a burst of dead-eyed gun-talk delivered in a half-asleep singsong over a pretty, twinkling beat with enough low end that it still sounds like the apocalypse coming out of trunk speakers. Dej Loaf, from Detroit, was absolutely unfamous before “Try Me” came along, and her producer DDS was a relative unknown, too. But “Try Me” has an instinctive force of its own. It’s ugly and pretty in equal measures, a softly melodic take on Chicago’s soul-burnt drill music. It sounds like nothing else, and it sounds like it’s always existed. Over the past few weeks, tons of rappers have cranked out their versions of “Try Me,” but all of them are only proving that they can’t bring the sui generis force that Dej Loaf brought to the original.
“Try Me” is only on Sell Sole, Dej Loaf’s new mixtape, in remixed form. A new version of the track, with Ty Dolla $ign and Remy Ma both attempting their own version of Dej Loaf’s singsong flow, comes at the end of the tape. It’s just the right way to treat the song. After all, Dej Loaf can sell “Try Me”; there’s no reason to give the original version away for free. (She just signed with Columbia earlier this week.) And anyway, “Try Me” would overwhelm a tape like this. Instead of focusing on the one song that made her famous, Dej Loaf uses the tape to explore both the sound and the persona that “Try Me” established. “Try Me,” it seems, was the moment where Dej Loaf discovered her voice. A few years ago, she was a college dropout working an emotive, disclosure-heavy rap style that connected her, in some ways, to her city’s rich backpack-rap legacy. Her self-released 2012 album Just Do It has some Slum Village, perhaps by way of Kendrick Lamar, in its DNA. But “Try Me” works because of the contrast between the lightness of her delivery and the darkness of her words. And that contrast can fuel a lot more than just one song.
On just about every song on Sell Sole, Dej Loaf sounds tough as hell, like someone who’s so tired of having to bust people’s faces. As with Chief Keef, there’s a heavy world-weariness to her delivery. Her cadences are flat and sleepy and sad. She sounds dead inside, and she knows it: “Ain’t no ho in my blood, been thorough since day one / Lost a couple people, and since then I been numb.” But she doesn’t sound beaten down, the way Keef does. She is capable of joy, and even if she never lets it creep into her voice, there’s a dizzy rush to some of her shit-talk: “Switching lanes, blowing kisses at you fucking devils.” On tape opener “Bird Call,” she shows that she’s got a technical ferocity beyond what she displayed on “Try Me,” taking the softness out of her voice and adapting an impactful sneer: “I’m a dog with this shit, I pooper-scooper these turds / Diamonds dancing like Omarion in You Got Served.”
She’s also got an emotional range that most of her Chicago drill peers can’t touch. “Never” is a genuinely touching keep-your-dreams ballad. “I Got It” is the sort of confessional she was doing on Just Do It, wishing she could talk to her dead grandmother and thanking her mother for good career advice. (She also talks a lot about her father, who was gunned down when she was four, and it lends a powerful pathos to even her knucklehead songs, the same way Waka Flocka Flame’s little brother’s ghost hung over Flockaveli.) There’s even a pair of shy, vulnerable love songs, “Me U & Hennessy” and “Easy Love.” With that halting, melodic voice, she can drop a line like “shut up, do what I say / open up your mouth, put this pussy on your face” and it sounds sweet.
“Try Me” producer DDS handled most of Sell Sole, and his style is a peculiar one. He favors gooey, fluid, half-muffled keyboard melodies and earthshaking globs of bass. His tracks smear and bang at the same time. It’s like the haunted sounds of cloud rap and chillwave have finally trickled through to street-rap, or like Chief Keef’s supremely stoned curio “Citgo” has finally spawned its own subgenre. It’s an ideal fit for Dej Loaf’s style; the tracks beautifully reflect her delicate balance of softness and hardness. Even on the tracks DDS didn’t produce, that balance stays more or less intact. It helps that the tape only has a few guests. Ty and Remy are on the “Try Me” remix, a couple of Detroit guys throw hardnosed verses on “Problem,” and Young Thug provides a nice jolt of disruptive energy on “Blood.” (Thug apparently wants to make a whole EP with Dej Loaf, and I support this notion completely.) But it’s important that Dej Loaf carries the tape herself, projecting personality all over everything. She’s the unquestioned star of her own tape, and that’s why Sell Sole comes out sounding like the announcement of a major talent arriving rather than the quick cash-in of a one-hit wonder. As I’m writing this, Sell Sole is less than 24 hours old. But based on what I’m hearing here, she’ll be around for a while.
Download Sell Sole at Livemixtapes.