Dej Loaf is not in the habit of writing checks she can’t cash. The 23-year-old Detroit native, named for her high school footwear preference, is matter-of-fact to the point where you can’t help but to trust her completely. Part of that comes from her not-so-distant backpacker past: Just Do It, her self-released 2012 solo debut, was full of Midwestern earnestness and diaristic boom-bap somewhere between Slum Village and popped-Polo Kanye. Stylistically, that stuff couldn’t be further from “Try Me”, Dej’s sweet-and-sour breakaway hit that gently threatens to turn enemies into a variety of Italian delicacies—a track that garnered the attention of Drake and secured her a deal with Columbia Records. But though Sell Sole, her first release in the spotlight, is devoid of the literal college dropout jams of her debut, that sense of confessional non-fiction lingers. As her songs have grown weirder, her lyrics have kept that idiosyncratic bluntness and a repulsion for theatrics. When some hometown detractors ask, early in the tape, why she insists on stunting on them so hard, her response is pragmatic: “I don’t know.”
Sell Sole represents a transitional stage for Dej, documenting the full gradient of her shift from straightforward raps to hustler’s nursery rhymes. This isn’t to say that her more traditional songs are lacking: she can rap, as immediately evident in no-hook, no-nonsense opener “Bird Call”. Her voice is light and gauzy, sometimes a little wispy but always clear and authoritative; lyrically she’s clever but restrained, delivering deadpan jabs in a half-smirk (“Diamonds dancing like Omarion in You Got Served“). But though her rappin’-ass rapping is accomplished, Dej seems to have sensed that these songs are not likely to have the impact of “Try Me”. Sure enough, the highlights of the tape are when Dej sings, either in half-rapped hybrid (on woozy crew love number “We Be On It”) or in full-on R&B mode (done best on “Easy Love”, the star-crossed soulmate of Chief Keef’s cult favorite “Citgo”).
Even in its most aspirational moments, Sell Sole is clouded with a pervasive sense of mourning. Throughout the tape, Dej recalls bits of herself she has lost, most notably through the death of her father, cousin, and grandmother. There is no real climax, no “HYFR” moment. Instead, catharsis comes from the act of telling things as they are, quietly absorbing the suffering in her surroundings and soberly reflecting them back outward. On “We Be On It”, when Dej borrows Beyoncé’s self-love rallying cry, “I woke up like this,” it’s rendered calm and almost existential: “Okay, here I am.”
Dej’s cool realism and off-hand threats of violence have been compared to Chicago drill, but Lil Durk is her only real peer in the genre. Durk, too, is a technically great rapper when the occasion calls for it, though like Dej, his best songs often don’t. Instead, both have an improvisational knack for melody and a tendency toward unshowy, personal lyricism. Her most direct influence, though, may be the late rapper/producer Speaker Knockerz. The quietly trend-setting South Carolina native developed a solid Midwest following before his unexpected death earlier this year, and Dej’s “On My Own” in particular is a direct descendent of his uncharacteristically somber last single, “Lonely”.
Wisely, there are relatively few features here, but the tape’s most prominent guests serve as a study in contrasts. On tape highlight “Blood”, known hyperbolist Young Thug, whose power often lies in his gift for caricature, acts as Dej’s foil; where Thug thrills with his unpredictability, zipping from wistful sing-song to geeked-up double-time flow, Dej’s comforting evenness keeps things planted firmly on earth. Most enlightening is the remixed version of “Try Me”, featuring guest verses from Remy Ma and Ty Dolla $ign along with an entirely revamped verse from Dej. Remy sounds right at home, gladly assimilating into Dej’s universe, but Ty’s contributions sound flat and unnatural. Though he traffics in a similar mode of rap-R&B hybridization, his breed of detached, fuck-your-feelings melodicism is a sore thumb in the midst of a tape so unguarded and unconcerned with coolness. Even if Sell Sole sometimes feels more like an artifact of transition than a polished final product, Dej’s emotional honesty feels vital.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1tJkgH5