Promising Queens rapper Deem Spencer has made a name for himself dwelling on grief. Is the world ready to not see him sad?
Deem Spencer is usually an unhurried person. However, in December 2017, the rapper decided to challenge himself. He wanted to see if he could record and release a project in less than a month. Alone, holed up in his room in Jamaica, Queens, he began the process on his laptop.
He would end up failing the challenge miserably. It would take Deem 14 months to craft and finish the EP that would eventually become Pretty Face. His third project, Pretty Face is an eclectic mix of whisper raps, melodies, and oddball meditative production. The first song he recorded — all the way back in December 2017 — was “to me,” a plucky track where Deem’s voice is distorted beyond recognition. The project contains 13 tracks, with the titles spelling out: “Really, I been tryna tell shorty how beautiful shorty is to me but shorty not tryna hear it from me.”
“Shorty” was Deem’s girlfriend of four years. And, throughout Pretty Face’s recording process, Deem was going through a hellish breakup with “shorty.” Juxtapose that heartache with the fact that he was having very tangible career success. Earlier that summer he released the enigmatic we think we alone. Suddenly he was getting write-ups and features in Pitchfork and Vice. He modeled for Nordstrom.
But throughout it all he was depressed. And all he wanted to do was stay in his room, do acid. And, occasionally, make music.
“It was just a weird time…It was the most attention I was ever getting,” Deem said. “I was pouring so much of myself out trying to [repair the realtionship] but I couldn’t, and that was the hard part. It was difficult.”
we think alone and Pretty Face are both projects about grief. (we think alone was recorded after the death of Deem’s grandfather, who he cared for during his final days.) Deem isn’t unpacking his sadness on these projects; rather, he’s sort of just stewing in it. There’s no journey or epiphanies that occur — the projects are snapshots.
“I didn’t find any clarity [during the recording of Pretty Face.] I was crying about it the whole time,” Deem said. “There is no happy point. Like, I don’t feel better at any point. I was just trying to tell her but she wasn’t tryna hear it from me.”
There’s a delirious characteristic to Deem’s music. He mostly mutters when he raps. Sometimes he repeats phrases like mantras. Other times, he’s off-key singing, something he’s grown more accustomed to as his career has developed.
It’s just all music that someone isolated in his room for 14 months would make.
“I don’t really introduce myself to people. That’s something I’ve noticed in the last few years. I could be in a room with all night and not say nothing to nobody.”
When I met Deem Spencer it looks like he’s trying to hide. The 23-year-old rapper is buried in an Adidas hoodie, which never comes off his head, and a gray bucket hat. It’s a 79-degree day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I don’t get hot,” he told me with a half grin.
He’s shy, reserved. He talks very slowly and rarely does he speak over a whisper. Sometimes you think he’s finished his statement, but he’s still processing. And it takes a couple of moments for him to finish his thoughts. Other times he’ll be in the middle of a statement and he’ll stop — “I forgot what you asked me” — as if he wants to make sure he answers the question correctly.
That sort of reserved, thoughtfulness is representative of how he writes his raps. He carries a standard seven by nine composition notebook with him most times. The pages are full of lines and phrases that he jots out throughout the day. His notepad contains the work of a meticulous editor: lines are scribbled, words are rearranged. This, despite the fact that he claims music comes to him easy.
“I don’t write every day, I don’t record every day, I don’t listen to music every day,” Deem said. “But when I do those things it turns out good. Like, I will make a good song whenever I do decide to write a good song. I see a lot of people who kind of envy me. I envy their work ethic…I know I’m talented, but I know if I worked harder I would be elsewhere.”
In an era where rap careers are microwaved, Deem’s has moved at a glacial pace. He first came to the attention of blogs in 2017 with the release of “Soap,” a mournful track in which Deem wrestles with his life after high school. “If I cared about some money I would be in college wasting it,” he says over the bluesy production. The song was written in 2015, when he was 19 living with his mother, a single parent. Deem was working for Amazon, recording songs on the side. His mom was a nurse so her schedule was erratic, leaving plenty of time for him to be alone in the house making music. “I was just trying to make some shit that I would like,” Deem said.
“Soap” was the lead song off of Sunflower, a quick 20 minute EP uploaded on Deem’s SoundCloud. Deem wasn’t as adventurous back then. He wasn’t singing as much and his voice was less distorted. But the project was a considerate and mature piece of work. It was the writing that stood out — Deem mostly rapping in riddles — like your wise drunk uncle trying to put you on to shit. Only when he got into the making of we think alone did things become more hallucinatory.
“I would like some money, I’m not gonna lie…The last three tapes was all for zero dollars.”
He’s already started thinking about the big one. The actual album album. He’s been ruminating about what he wants. Like, an actual budget and resources. But it seems like he’s ready for the Pretty Face experience to be behind him.
“I don’t think I need to be going through shit to make music,” Deem said. “Since January, I have embraced love. Like, I have embraced all the love around me, I stay around people who love me and I’ve grown to be that for myself and that feels really good, I’m not gonna lie. “
He mentions that he feels the creative energy he felt when he made Sunflower — “making shit I would like.” He headlined his first show, at Brooklyn’s Baby’s Alright, and he’ll be headlining another show in April for Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Editors note: Okayplayer is co-presenter of the show.”)
He’s also traveled, grateful to have gone to places like Atlanta and Canada. Which don’t seem very far but are when you consider where he was around this time last year.
“I don’t want to work out of my bedroom,” Deem said. “I got no problem locking into a space to work, but just my own bedroom…isn’t it right now.”
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