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We say artists are “ahead of their time” a lot but very rarely is it so applicable as it is to Dej Loaf. The pint-size Detroit MC arrived seemingly fully formed in 2014 with her second mixtape, Sell Sole, at the very peak of the “blog rap” craze and the resulting major-label feeding frenzy. Her viral single “Try Me” instantly sparked an intense interest in her tomboy looks and futuristic rhyming style. Her sing-song hooks drove further smashes like the Motor City all-star posse cut “Detroit Vs. Everybody” and The Game’s Tupac-saluting “Ryda.” Dej Loaf seemed poised to take over the world — and then, abruptly, it was like someone pressed “pause” on her career despite all her forward momentum.
Aside from one 2015 EP and a “commercial mixtape” that went criminally overlooked in 2016, Columbia Records went nearly four years without giving Dej Loaf a solid release date for her debut album, prompting her to cut ties in 2019. In 2017, the originally proposed release year, the label released a mere handful of confusing singles that buried Dej’s boisterous personality under incongruous, pop-reaching production and guest stars that just didn’t make any sense. Artists who came along after her adopting her ad-lib-ridden flows flourished as she languished in label limbo. Fortunately, her original style was so prescient that by returning to it on her independently released debut, fittingly titled Sell Sole II, the long-delayed project sounds just as timely and fresh as it did on “Try Me.”
Taking stock of the changes in both Loaf’s image and production style from the original Sell Sole to its sequel, it looks safe to say that Sell Sole II is the album that she always wanted to make. The tragedy is that it’s the sort of album a female performer can only make independent of the major label system. The arc of her career has been mirrored in recent times by a number of other young women who had enough viral success in the Wild West days of SoundCloud at the start of the streaming era to draw attention from the majors, only to be promptly shelved when the “formulas” that those majors normally apply to female talent turned off those women’s day-one fans. Just look at Iggy Azalea, Kamaiyah, or Tinashe. When allowed the freedom to create on their own terms, their music has had more vitality and verve than it ever did with million-dollar budgets.
On her arrival, Dej Loaf already represented a departure from the trappings of traditionalist hip-hop and the prototype for the nascent brand of SoundCloud rap that would come to dominate XXL Freshman classes after her own appearance in 2015. But as one of the bridges between those two styles, she’s been left out of the conversation for far too long. It’s worth noting that Dej’s Freshman cover was the first in two years to feature a female artist (it actually had two, Dej and Tink — another casualty of the major label system who’s flourished as an independent artist after leaving her mentor Timbaland’s imprint in 2018). It’s also telling that within months of signing on to Columbia, she was being pushed to trade in her oversized hockey jerseys — a throwback to the baggy looks of MC Lyte and TLC — for designer lingerie in video shoots.
On Sell Sole II, the jersey-rocking, shit-talking Dej is back in full effect. Right from “Bird Call 2,” the scintillating intro, Dej goes back to her roots, reminding listeners that she comes from a family of hustlers and is grounded in “real-hip-hop.” References to rap classics like 400 Degreez and “U.N.I.T.Y.” litter the project, as do the clever, understated punchlines that proved Dej’s lyrical chops early in her career. “When you fly like Marjorie you need a n**** like Mr. Hightower,” she quips on “Queen.” Reuniting with Big Sean on “IDK,” the Motown duo rekindles the chemistry of “Back Up,” with Dej throwing the alley-oop for Sean’s 360-dunk of a verse. “I don’t know what your chain doin’ but that shit look like rust,” they jab at rivals. “I don’t know who they speakin’ on, but they shouldn’t speak on us.”
Elsewhere on the album, Dej reconnects with Rick Ross and blesses beats alongside the modern generation of rappers whose styles bear her influence. Gunna harmonizes with Loaf on “No Ceiling,” while fellow Detroiters 42 Dugg and Sada Baby amplify Dej’s hometown bravado on “Tap In.” Then, on “Simply” with Lil Uzi Vert, Dej makes a convincing case that she’s one of the Philly rapper’s most complementary collaborators — which makes sense, considering she and Uzi pioneered their own styles of rap in tandem during their shared come-ups. Their styles share enough elements that their eventual crossovers always leave me wondering why they don’t happen much more often.
Now that the diminutive Detroiter is fully in command of her own destiny again, they might. Sell Sole II is proof positive that artists must remain in the creative driver’s seat in order for their musical output to match fans’ expectations — and artists’ expectations of themselves. When she was reaching for that crossover appeal, Dej wasn’t making the music that she wanted, which meant her fans didn’t want it either. Formulas are fine for some artists but when you’re ahead of your time, you must create at your own pace and simply let the world catch up. It’s been six years since “Try Me,” but that sound is the pulse of the scene now. It looks like the world just might be aligning with where Dej Loaf has been all along.
Sell Sole II is out now via Yellow World. Get it here.