IN THE BRO­KEN-DOWN BASE­MENT of Saint An­drew’s Hall, the his­toric Detroit mu­sic venue that’s rum­bled with the re­verb of ev­ery­one from Iggy Pop to Eminem, a group of 20 or so rap­pers, their posses, and var­i­ous scen­esters are tak­ing drags of cigar-size blunts, count­ing stacks of cash, and chat­ting as a show­case gets started up­stairs. Young Thug and Travis Scott, ar­guably two of the hottest young stars in hip-hop, are here. So is Bryan “Bird­man” Wil­liams, the high-rolling co­founder of Cash Money Records. But the only one any­body seems to care about is Dej Loaf, a shorthaired, five-foot-noth­ing 24-year-old wear­ing a white track jacket with the words self made em­bla­zoned on the back. She be­gan the evening stand­ing alone in a cor­ner but was soon beck­oned to the cen­ter, where, one by one, nearly ev­ery per­son asked to snap a selfie or share a word.

“It’s tough to have the world watch­ing you,” Dej con­fessed ear­lier. And yet the ca­sual cool with which she min­gles among the hip-hop Cosa Nos­tra makes it ob­vi­ous she’s grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to the spot­light.

Dej, born Deja Trim­ble, has been one of the most talked-about new tal­ents in hip-hop ever since 2014’s $ell Sole mix­tape. The self-de­scribed shy girl made a lot of noise with the tightly wound col­lec­tion, es­pe­cially the sin­gle “Try Me,” a melodic, threat­en­ing num­ber that quickly be­came a de facto street an­them. Drake and Wiz Khal­ifa shouted it out, as did Nicki Mi­naj, with whom she’ll be tour­ing this sum­mer. The masses caught on, and soon Dej was light­ing up Soundcloud, draw­ing com­par­isons to ev­ery­one from Lil’ Kim to Lau­ryn Hill, and sign­ing with Columbia.

“I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet,” she says as we sit in her record­ing stu­dio a few hours prior to the show­case. “You’ve got to keep it go­ing. Peo­ple, their at­ten­tion span is like…” Her soft, gauzy voice rises slightly, and she flails her arms to the sky. “Peo­ple are never sat­is­fied.”

Col­lec­tive Studios, where Dej records, oc­cu­pies two sides of an in­dus­trial block. She spends most of her hours there, craft­ing hooks, sharp­en­ing lyrics. It sits on the west side of Detroit, clear across the city from the east­side projects where she grew up, a child­hood that was rough even by Detroit’s stan­dards. Dej’s fa­ther was mur­dered when she was four, and she and her two broth­ers lived with her drug-deal­ing grand­mother. “It was just a dif­fer­ent life­style,” she says. “We had lit­er­ally noth­ing. I saw a lot of stuff at an early age.”

As a child, Dej was crip­plingly in­tro­verted. But mu­sic al­ways spoke to her. “Even if it wasn’t good, I al­ways found a CD and just played it,” Dej says, re­call­ing how she’d sit on her fa­ther’s lap, rap­ping along with 2pac and E-40. La­trice Hud­son, Dej’s mother, no­ticed her daugh­ter’s ear. “There was never a mo­ment when she wasn’t do­ing some­thing with it,” she says. “Dej was mo­ti­vated with mu­sic more than any­thing.”

Dej wrote lyrics and beats all through­out high school. It was dur­ing her time at Sag­i­naw Val­ley State Univer­sity that she started to work on what would be­come her de­but mix­tape, 2012’s Just Do It. “I was just feel­ing my­self more, find­ing out who I was,” she says. The al­bum’s con­fes­sional style was born of the tran­si­tion to adult­hood. “It was the ups and downs,” she says. “Just not hav­ing a lot go­ing for your­self.”

Dej be­gan trav­el­ing back to Detroit and im­mers­ing her­self in the un­der­ground scene. Even­tu­ally, she built up the courage to per­form. “It was like, OK, I get it. I’m who I am now,” she says. “When I saw her per­form for the first time, it was kind of like the first time I heard Lil’ Kim rap,” says Big Soj, Dej’s en­gi­neer and musical con­fi­dant. “She com­manded at­ten­tion.”

Dej ad­mits that those who knew her would never be­lieve that shy girl was now per­form­ing in front of thou­sands, threat­en­ing to “leave a bitch nigga head in pasta.” But it’s all part of her per­sona.

“When she’s per­form­ing, that’s a per­for­mance,” her mother says, laugh­ing. “She’s still the same quiet, shy per­son.”

Min­utes af­ter tak­ing a break from the crowd and idling in a back stair­well, Dej is on­stage with Young Thug. Her limbs start bounc­ing in sync to the beat, and she ra­di­ates con­fi­dence. “Hey, let a nigga try me in this mother­fucker!” she yells to the packed house. She’s happy, smil­ing be­hind gold-rimmed Cartier glasses.

The glasses are im­por­tant; they’re a Detroit sta­tus sym­bol. “Grow­ing up, if you had a pair, you were do­ing some­thing,” she says. Dej hasn’t splurged on much: an MCM pink back­pack, a 300S for her mom. As a woman who, when work­ing as a jan­i­tor, was once forced to scrub floors with a tooth­brush, Dej knows it could soon dis­ap­pear. “You never get used to this,” she says af­ter her set. We con­tinue talk­ing, and she re­turns to her de­mure self be­fore a man in­ter­rupts. “I’m sorry, but they’re yelling. They want you back.”

The young star smiles, turns, and strides back up­stairs. ■

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