Photography by Rose Marie Cromwell
DeJ Loaf has hatched a plan to go horseback riding. It’s a little past noon on a Saturday in Atlanta, and DeJ, a big animal lover, is ready to cross horses off her bucket list. She’s dressed for the occasion, wearing a sleek version of a jockey outfit: beige patch riding pants from Zara, a long coat over a chocolate blazer, and Hermès boots. Pincurls peek out from a small cowgirl hat. She’s also packed a Canon DSLR so someone can capture the experience in hi-def, both for social media and personal archives.
She sits in the passenger seat of a black Suburban for the 45-minute drive to Lanier Islands, a cluster of resorts and vacation attractions north of Atlanta. She’s quiet the entire time, reviewing some of the moodier, explicitly sexual tracks she’s recorded for Liberated, the debut album fans have been waiting for since 2014’s “Try Me,”a surprise breakout single on which DeJ casts a small yet imposing shadow. Pulling up to the stables, a small black goat greets us. We pass a miniature rock waterfall and a light post with a sign that reads: “Are you up to the challenge?”
Our appointed instructor, an attentive and jovial woman in jeans and a tee, introduces DeJ to a 700-pound Welsh pony. To begin, she has DeJ lead the horse around a small pen to build her confidence. The instructor is a pro at stroking egos, but seems legitimately impressed with her swift grasp of riding. Whenever she asks if DeJ wants to proceed to the next level — onto the dirt trail, and then over near the lake — DeJ accepts, with no signs of panic or anxiety.
After a lesson about posture in the saddle, DeJ learns to direct the horse into a quicker trot. At her request, I stand off to the side with her iPhone and capture footage of the ride for Snapchat. The instructor graciously pauses during picturesque moments to snap photos of DeJ on the Canon. “Anybody who’s got rhythm finds trotting a lot easier because of the beat,” she tells DeJ, before instructing her: “Up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down.” DeJ spends 45 minutes riding; I spend five. Hours later, I search Twitter for DeJ’s name. One user has already reposted the shot of her on a horse, which she uploaded to Instagram, along with a joke: “dej loaf said fuck rap.”
DeJ hasn’t said “fuck rap,” exactly, but she hasn’t said much of anything at all. At 25, she’s a seasoned hermit, though her bold style and her music disguise it well. In conversation, she has a habit of clipping sentences into fragments capped with ellipses that sever her thoughts. We instantly commiserate over our shyness, trading stories about being quiet (“How was it for you? Were you social?” DeJ asks me), to the point that it sounds like an Introverts Anonymous session. “I’ve done terrible interviews,” she says, noting that she’s since learned to raise her voice when she speaks. “When I first started out, it looked like I didn’t wanna be there. I feel like I’m good now. I still work on it, though.”
The shyness that she says held her back for most of her life became a professional challenge after “Try Me.” In the past two years, which saw her open for Nicki Minaj’s Pinkprint Tour and perform in a Lil Kim tribute for VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors concert, acts like Young M.A. and Tink have broken out, too, renewing the conversation about the so-called dearth of women rappers. DeJ could find commercial and critical success alongside them.
With no album yet to show, she’s been cautiously finding her voice, supplying her fan base with two mixtapes, an EP, and loosies to hold their attention. Mostly, she speaks through social media, feeding fans from a distance — a method that offers daily updates (inspirational quotes, outfit-of-the-day shots) without oversharing.
“I know for a fact that I’m a mysterious person,” is one of the first things she tells me when we meet. “Like, Who is this girl? Who does she date? What’s her sexual preference? What is she wearing? People always trying to figure me out. It’s been like that all my life, and now on this platform, it’s like, millions. Everybody’s poking, but I just feel like the things they want to know are the smallest parts about me.”
A middle child, DeJ grew up in Detroit, where she lived with her parents, her older sister Des, and her baby brother Cameron at Freedom Place, a block of low-income housing on the westside. DeJ, born Deja Trimble, and Des shared a bunk bed. Their mom, Latrice Hudson, a beautician, had a home-based salon business. DeJ’s dad, Sidney Fitzgerald Trimble, sold drugs and supported the family until he was shot and killed in front of their apartment in June 1995, when DeJ was 4. “They kept the bullet dents in the fucking door for a couple years after,” DeJ remembers. “Like, you gotta walk past that and see all these dents.”
After their father died, DeJ and her siblings moved in with their grandmother Joanne on the northside, in a big yellow house. Joanne assigned them chores and kept an immaculate home. She sold drugs, too. About two years later, the kids moved to the eastside with their mom into the projects of Fairview Manor. Latrice, known affectionately to fans as Mama Loaf, says raising the kids wasn’t much of a struggle. “DeJ wasn’t a street runner,” she tells me over the phone from Atlanta, where she now lives around the corner from her daughter. “She wasn’t one of the kids that you have to worry about. She stayed in her books, writing, writing, writing, writing, all day.” She kept to herself. “Deja was never a friendly person,” says her mom.
“We didn’t grow up showing affection,” DeJ adds. “That’s the type of stuff now [where] I’m just like, Yo, when I have kids I’m gonna teach them all the things that I didn’t learn that I always wanted to do. We don’t hug, we don’t tell each other we love each other, but we know. I get emotional when I see certain things, a little teary-eyed. When I see fathers with their daughters or just little stuff — it just come out of me.”
“I never want to be caught up, just doing it for a couple blocks. I want the world to see me.”
When DeJ was 6 and started school at Howe Elementary, she met her best friend, Tranica Billups. Over the phone from her home in Detroit today, Tranica sounds as much like a Rugrats character as DeJ does, with her soft, childlike voice. She remembers the two of them being inseparable. They played basketball, shopped at the mall, and had contests covering songs like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” to see who could carry a better tune. DeJ says she always won.
Tranica recalls DeJ catching fits whenever her mom made her wear their school uniform, a dress. “She would cry and take forever to get ready. She didn’t want to wear a dress, and if she did, she would wear gym shoes with her dress,” says Tranica. “If she didn’t like something, that was that. If she wasn’t doing something, that was that. Ain’t no one could convince her to think differently. She had a mind of her own.”
As a measure of how quiet she was, DeJ says she can count on her fingers how many words she spoke at Southeastern High School. She spent the majority of her teens in her room, writing in her diary — sometimes, transcribing the lyrics to popular songs — or indulging in escapist TV shows like The Hills and Nip/Tuck. “I wasn’t a nerd, but I could have been more social,” she says. “Like, I didn’t do any talent shows ‘cause I was shy and scared of what people may think. I knew I could do it, I just didn’t want to.”
After high school, DeJ studied nursing at Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University but dropped out before graduating. After that, she held typical jobs for an 18-year-old: as a cashier at Tim Hortons, then at the Dairy Queen in a mall in Dearborn. That’s also when she began to prioritize music and joined a local crew named Creative Minds Coalition as its sole woman member; together, they booked occasional underground gigs. Right before she released “Try Me,” DeJ worked as a janitor at the new Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, a Detroit suburb. Most days, she’d loiter in the bathroom stall and fall asleep until clock-out time, hoping not to get caught. The job made her miserable. “Some days, it felt like free money,” she says. “Some days, it felt like, Why am I here?”
The night before our riding excursion, DeJ is feeling seafood, so we drive half an hour to the nearest Pappadeaux, a popular chain, where she orders lobsters the size of her head. DeJ’s outfit is monumental, too: a black hooded trenchcoat that drapes past her knees, embellished with lettering, skulls, and roses. Covering almost the entire length of her legs, thigh-high Givenchy platform sneaker-boots give the 5’1’’ rapper a 2” boost. A bandana that reads “Junkie” completes the look. As if she weren’t conspicuous enough, we’re seated at a table in plain sight of other diners. Our server doesn’t appear to recognize DeJ, though she does compliment her coat. We both get carded for drinks.
Throughout the night, several young fans approach our table. When another server requests a photo with her — “Either now or later?” she asks — DeJ tells her, “Later.” One particularly egregious dude taps her shoulder from behind and crouches to speak into her ear. DeJ, whose manager Mike Brinkley had described as “not the go-out-and-eat type,” looks annoyed. After the guy leaves, she vents. “You can’t walk up on me like that,” she says. “He’s definitely not getting a picture.”
These regular intrusions are part of why she prefers to stay in. But she knows they’re also part of the deal. “It’s definitely hard sometimes. I had people come up to me once while I was eating and they didn’t give me an option of ‘now or later.’ They’re just like, ‘Can we please?’” she says. “I might come off like I’m mean, but it’s like, Bruh...”
But for someone so weary of attention, DeJ is consciously moving toward it. After signing to Columbia in 2014, she spent more than a year traveling for appearances and performances before leaving home and settling down with her mother and siblings in Atlanta. “Detroit is… I lived there for 24 years of my life,” she says. “You get a lot of people who say they wouldn’t leave the city. You kinda get caught up in thinking that’s it. I never want to be caught up, just doing it for a couple blocks. I want the world to see me.”
The change felt sudden, and so did the growing pressure from fans anticipating an official album. She quickly realized how much work it would take to satisfy them. “Before, it was just a few people waiting on it. Now I have thousands of followers on Twitter. Everybody’s like, ‘Where’s the music?’ or ‘One-hit wonder.’ Just all this stuff,” says DeJ. “And it’s like, Damn, y’all don’t even know. I’m used to taking my time, like, Y’all can’t see my baby yet. So it’s hard ’cause they think I’m just not working or some shit.”
Earlier that day, we’re at the studio where DeJ spends much of her time. From a plum-colored backpack, she pulls out a MacBook wrapped in a light wood grain case. The laptop is full of songs for Liberated, which has no release date yet but is 90 percent complete, according to her manager. From behind a pair of prescription eyeglasses with blush-colored frames, DeJ sits at a console, making minimal eye contact, her words trapped somewhere between her mind and the glow of LED spotlights. When she speaks, it’s in a tone so soft that it gets lost in the hum of studio equipment.
When she first started recording last summer, she says, she was determined to make a classic rap album. “I think I was forcing it, trying to make it sound a certain way as opposed to just letting it be natural,” she says. “I’m thinking, like, Lauryn. I didn’t want to sing. I just wanted to rap, like hardcore. Just give ’em bars. I wanted people to take it seriously. I was just so focused on that at first. And then I’m like, You know what? Just do you.”
The songs she plays me are a canny mix of high-spirit, dream-chasing anthems, explicit slow jams, and memoir-like material that finds her singing more than rapping. When she plays the title track, featuring her labelmate Leon Bridges, a singer with rich, ’60s-style vocals, it sounds fit for both a Gap commercial and a block party. It’s a cheerful song about feeling carefree, with a chorus where Bridges sings, “I won’t judge who you love or your brown skin,” and it sticks after just one listen. She’s more lyrics-focused on an untitled song, rapping over a gloomy beat about her mom’s pregnancy at age 17, her father’s cheating, and his murder.
“You’re not gonna be able to figure me out in this four-hour session. My mom hasn’t even figured me out.”
DeJ is actively thinking in terms of strategy — which songs to push first, where to shoot her videos, and how she should look. For instance, she plans to drop the untitled song separately from the album, packaged with intense visuals. That teaser setup is something she’s already done this year, with leathery, heart-to-heart records like “Snakes” and “Beef N Broccoli,” released on SoundCloud instead of for sale, which suggests a desire to maintain an independent approach to fuel and expand her base. “You gotta be smart in this industry. You gotta play the game,” she says of her extended rollout. “The business is the most important part. Like, the music is cool, but if your business isn’t together, shit can go all bad for you.”
DeJ has a vision for Liberated, which she insists is fully her own. “I’m not like, Oh I wanna be a pop artist,” she says. “I’m hoping people understand that this isn’t fake, or don’t think I’m just doing this because I’m being forced. I’ve always wanted to make bigger music. But I never could go all the way ’cause I didn’t have the resources, in terms of working with Grammy Award-winning producers, bigger studios, a bigger sound. I’ve always had it in me, but my voice is developed now. I’m myself. I’m who I always wanted to be.”
Liberated has tracks made with guys like Detail (best known for Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” and his work with Lil Wayne), Ricky “Wallpaper” Reed (Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and Fifth Harmony’s “Boss”), and songwriter Marlon XXIII, her boy from Detroit. While recording over the summer, DeJ developed a rapport with those collaborators and credits them with making her more of a perfectionist. “You can tell the difference in the music,” she says. “I trust those people.” As with other areas of her life, she maintains a distance among less familiar company. “I’ve been in the studio with other producers,” she says, “and they’re trying to figure me out. I’m like, ‘You’re not gonna be able to figure me out in this four-hour session. My mom hasn’t even figured me out. Save it, let’s just work.’”
After dinner, she heads back to the studio, where she spends the night by herself, perfecting the Auto-Tuned lullabies and inspirational chants that might one day make her a superstar. But DeJ knows loosening her grip on solitude will get her closer to her goal. “I think I’ve become better at opening up. It’s part of what got me to this place,” she says, with the caveat that there’s a limit. She wants freedom. “We talked about that in the beginning of me signing. You gotta let me be me. Because everything I’m doing and how I operated has worked for me all this time. That’s what it really is about — that mystery.”
The world has been trying to figure DeJ out, and one of the public’s most consistent curiosities has concerned her romantic life. In January 2016, she played the romantic lead in the video for “My Beyoncé,” her flirty, relationship-goals duet with Chicago rapper Lil Durk. The treatment involved a cutesy reenactment of Love & Basketball, and their onscreen chemistry elicited rumors that they were dating, which they both seemed to encourage in a string of social media posts and captions.
In the studio, I ask DeJ if they were dating. “You know what’s crazy? I would say we were,” she says. “I’ve always thought he was attractive. We were definitely into each other.” But, she says, “People just kinda took it and ran with it.” She adds, “I know now you have to be careful what you do, who you do it with. I wouldn’t deny me and Durk. We’ve been friends. We were never, like, an item. We’re still getting to know each other, and we still learning each other and figuring it out. But the internet, of course, you do anything…” She jokes, “Obviously we kissed so we’re married. With children.”
Another, more defamatory rumor surfaced, from an aspiring rapper named Aye Redd, who told celebrity website Bossip that DeJ was faking the relationship with Durk. She also claimed to be DeJ’s ex-girlfriend, making DeJ’s sexual orientation a dominant narrative in her public image, without her consent. Redd’s accusation echoed a conspiracy that the coupling was a plot driven by the business: a straight rapper with an industry boyfriend would be more marketable, the theory went. After riding horses, over counterfeit Caribbean food at another chain restaurant, Bahama Breeze, DeJ declines to address Redd. “There’s nothing to confirm. I don’t wanna talk about it,” she says. She leans her head against the window, facing away, and after a long discomfiting pause, says, “Everything else is cool. We can talk about dating or whatever.”
“I date whoever. I feel a connection with anyone,” she continues. “I’m not into labels. I love people. You know. It’s just that simple. I think everybody wants for me to be a certain way, and it’s like, Can I figure me out before you just start telling me who I am?” She continues with a cautious explanation of her dating philosophy. “When I get to my final destination, I’ll send out a fucking public service announcement to everybody who’s always concerned,” she says. “Right now, I’m not even thinking about it, honestly. Like, I love people. But I think it just makes people feel better when you’re like, OK, I’m this.”
This is a common stance among public figures and young people existing in the world. For some, opening up about this aspect of your identity can be liberating, but there’s also the school of thought that fixing your identity makes you vulnerable or less free. Even though she’s from an older generation, DeJ’s mom sees no need for further public clarification on the matter, either. “I love the fact that she has everyone wondering,” she says. “Her dating life is her life. She’s a grown individual. If she want a woman, a man, or whatever, a puppy — that’s her life. Just making yourself happy, that’s what life’s about.”
Life for DeJ now is all about adjustments. She’s thinking carefully about when to move in silence and when to show out. Fans can get close, but not too close. People can continue to wonder. Her first album has yet to drop and her mind is already ahead of music.
At the studio on the first day we meet, DeJ and her manager stand in front of a laptop and mull over options for a future line of merch. Rather than the standard sweatshirts, hoodies, and hats, she’s thinking robes and house slippers, the same ensemble from the “Try Me” video, where we first met her. She wants unexpected items, and to keep the price points affordable, between $50 and $200. She wants something for everyone. “I wanna take my time and do something crazy,” she says. “Like, timeless pieces.” Surveying the options and colors on the screen, hands clasped behind her back, she pauses for several long seconds before breaking the silence and wondering aloud: “What about baby stuff?”