Imperfect and That’s OK: Deem Spencer Brings Introspective Rap to Oberlin for Orientation

Deem Spencer put on an entertaining show at the ’Sco Saturday night, with his jerky and frenetic dancing and many bottle-flip attempts. His work is introspective and powerful, and his music high quality; however, his performance fell a little short.

The show got off on an awkward foot — when it started at least half an hour late, the audience had already begun to dwindle. When Spencer did appear on stage, a beat started, and then stopped, and then started again, and then stopped, before he requested that the stage lights be dimmed and the audience be quiet, saying something to the effect of, “I’ll wait.”

“He wasn’t like ‘ah, love you guys’ like the way you’d expect, but I kind of appreciated that. It was something different, it wasn’t fake,” said Oberlin first-year Fiona Warnick. “He definitely seems like he’s making the art for himself, not the audience.”

Spencer isn’t looking to make something that will please everyone, but that’s OK. It’s more important that his art comes from a place of truth and expression.

In researching his artistic expression further, I found that his music videos have cultivated a strong online presence. They are well thought-out and use powerful imagery — combined well with lyrics that are deep, funny, and puzzling.

“Shorty, I could turn the water to a flame / I’m a martyr marker, the art of ark / I’m a water walker, I could leave the unholy on a wave,” he raps on his his song “soap.”

Spencer has also released a number of videos in collaboration with PROLOVEVISUALS, including videos for two of his most-played songs on Spotify: “soap” and “There Was Plenty Time Before Us.”

I particularly appreciated “we think we alone,” the video titled after his latest album. It contains the visual motif of stop motion, footage of New York City, and biblical references to Eve. It is broad and metaphorical, and its disjointedness leaves you with strong images and unanswered questions. Leaves shown in the video even made their way into a dream I had the other night.

Similarly, the video for “soap” is both abstract and visually stimulating. Footage of Spencer rapping while manipulating stop motion puppets was layered over more zoomed in film of the actual stop motion he was creating, making for a dynamic visual tableau to accompany lyrics about regret and growth. It illustrates retrospection on a conceptual and engaging level: we only have so much control in our lives, and while we can lament as much as we’d like, we can never fix something from the outside.

Spencer’s work prompts questions about both the genre of rap and art itself. There was a time when rock n’ roll was brand new and existed as a single genre — we called The Beatles a rock band. But now, almost 60 years later, we have subgenres inside of subgenres, like something out of Inception: Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Alternative, Punk, Metal, Screamo, Electroclash — it’s time we give rap the distinctions that exist in other genres of music. Deem Spencer’s work is incomparable to Nicki Minaj or Kanye West, just like Metallica isn’t exactly “I Wanna Hold your Hand.”

In researching Spencer, most sources noted his potential as an artist, which raises questions about how we value both potential and product. Deem Spencer truly has a lot of potential. But when we say that, it isn’t a statement on how good an artist is now, it’s a statement on what we believe them capable of, and what we think they’ll want to do. There are a lot of expectations in that, but also a certain freedom. It’s fair to say that Spencer’s work is certainly distinct, both in its conceptual depth and performative uniqueness. This makes for substance for his listeners today, as well as potential for his future fans.

I appreciate Spencer’s work for the questions it raised for me about rap and artistic potential, and I believe he has far to go as an artist and is capable of getting there. I’ll wait.