Deem Spencer, 21, is a Queens native with a penchant for sincerity even when it’s inconvenient. He’s built a corner of the universe on inconvenient truths, like an E train ride through his daily drama and hyper imagination, from the vantage of a dark humor and sly lyricism that entangles itself and never sticks around for too long. His songs end in a flash, a static pinging you from one set piece to the next like the clicker on a tube. The stories feel tinted with a winter grey, slightly surreal but very grounded in now. At his loftiest on “eve’s titties,” Deem envisions a reincarnation as a leaf over Eve’s areola, sent to prevent the Original Sin with a whisper; on “iwyboft,” he’s sleeping with someone’s girl in a sing-songy braggadocio that’ll surely catch up when the aforementioned parties hear it.
“Yeah, I’ve been in trouble for shit I’ve said, but you know… it happens,” Deem said with a dry chuckle when pressed about the flex. “It’s gonna happen.”
Foregoing the college experience with dreams of one day becoming a screenwriter, Deem spent the back end of his teenage years caring for his ailing grandfather while working menial jobs to line his pockets. He maintained his middle school friendship with Mike Weir of PROLOVEVISUALS; the pair planned to live up to their childhood ambitions of stand-up and filmmaking as Mike went to college while Deem hung back. Mike’s had a hand in every Deem Spencer visual thus far; each piece feels like a snapshot from the indie film of Deem’s life, featuring dynamic moments in static locales almost nowhere in particular.
His mastery in saying just enough even permeates how he describes himself: upon inquiry of what the location and co-star of “fucked up flowers” meant to him, Deem kept the details to himself. When I ask about his influences, he mentions a love for Chappelle’s Show and a deep affinity for the exaggerated slapstick comedy of '90s-baby shows like Keenan & Kel, but doesn’t point towards a specific visual idol. Between bike rides and park strolls, the worlds feel intimate and distant as the Deem figure revels in his mystery, building from minimalism while shedding the excess.
As songs grow as short as our attention spans, brevity’s been as entangled with substance as its ever been. Deem Spencer sacrifices nothing. He released the 11-minute sunflower EP in 2016, featuring the engrossing single “soap,” and recently broke out with his “we think we alone” EP: a time capsule of January 2017 that feels more like a performance piece to whomever he’s becoming right now. He can’t divorce the recording process from the memories of that month; the project’s success fascinates him while instantly taking him back. Early supporters have praised Deem for his nimble handling of darker subject matter, easily filing him in a narrow tortured soul territory for his youthful abstractions. Deem gets the sentiment, but doesn’t feel that he operates from a place of sadness; more a reflection of everything he finds worthy of mentioning.
“we think we alone is more about not being concerned about anybody, as sort of like a remedy to being over-influenced by other people,” Deem says. “When you keep to yourself in order to stay away from bad influence, you can sometimes get absorbed in yourself and too in your own head. You lose touch with other people, you lose touch with the people you should be close to, kinda. [The EP] is about thinking you’re alone, or thinking you should be alone, or thinking it’s just you going through shit.”
Where sunflower felt much more claustrophobic and concerned with the thoughts of everyone else, we think we alone finally owns the power in not giving a fuck and focusing on yourself. Featuring production from the likes of Pip, Jachary, and Joey Desktop, a winter in Queens feels far warmer than it should: full of gloomy organs and piercing synths in ambient pieces, bringing an otherworldly feel to the lo-fi boom-bap standards of classic New York rap. Lyrically, it’s a journal of how Deem reacts to the evolution of the life cycle, as everyone does. His imperfect Cudi-reminiscent croon renders a tender humanity in his tragicomic character like the quiet homie in everyone’s neighborhood.
When he mentions getting the mail in his passed grandfather’s name on “moonflower,” it transports the listener to their pain while mirroring his own onto us. When he raps about the proverbial basement on “mother earth,” he recalls his friend Spencer’s neighborhood studio where everyone would congregate to work with dreams of ending up anywhere but there. Yet, Deem insists that even the lowest stages of process should be valued with the victory; why rush?
“Even though it’s a creative space you can call your own, the goal still has to be to get out of there,” Deem says. “We all don’t want to be stuck here. There’s been times where we’ve clashed from impatience; it felt like we’re there too long, we’re all tryna figure out ways to get out of that creative space we should be growing in, not necessarily rushing so far to leave. That alone represents home to me: even a child tryna move outta their crib too early. Don’t be scared of… I don’t know.”
Today, Deem’s far from the insecure kid trapped in his mind. He’s thankful for the praise, his family likes his music, and he’s still never going to school. The prospect of his ascent begs the question of which level of celebrity, if any, would be compatible with who he is and what he makes.
“I’m not out the basement just yet,” he says with a slight laugh.” I mean, I’m livin’, I can’t complain about anything, really. I’m just tryna keep it that way. I know that if I was doing some other shit, I would have a lotta complaints. I can’t complain about shit, I’m doing what I wanna be doing.”
Deem wants to be a big star, but his biggest ambition is the next project he nailed the idea down for the night before we spoke. He doesn’t tell me that, either, but leaves a promise as a keepsake: “It’s gon’ be good.” The minute he gets his money up, he’s putting a flower shop in Queens; the name remains undetermined, the prophecy unfulfilled at this time. Though he spent a decent amount of our talk reassuring the audience of the humor in himself, I’m still unsure of which philosophy he operates from: a Black boy from Queens, with dreams of the screens, freeing his pain and smiling more than we realize? What’s the true angle?
“I’m not optimistic, cuz... I don’t think shit is gonna get better,” Deem says. “I don’t really trust the world to get better. But I’m not pessimistic, either, because I don’t think the world is unlivable. I feel like we could all live here, but at the same time, I know that a lot of us are gonna kill each other. You just gotta be happy where you, at and not cause trouble.”
But how much does he trust himself?
“That’s a good question. I trust myself not to… do something I don’t wanna do. I know that much. I know that if I do anything, I wanted to do it.”
Top photo by Randy Singleton