Lately, Duche$$ has felt like she’s being followed by a cloud. It’s not normal for the 24-year-old rapper to be gloomy. While her songs are often suffused with somber storytelling, the musician herself is typically upbeat. Whether in the studio, at a friend’s place or at work at the Boys and Girls Club, she’s usually boasting a thousand-watt smile and enough energy for everyone in the room. But, frankly, no one can blame her for feeling down. The COVID-19 pandemic is killing people of color at a disturbing rate, and Black men are still being killed by police. Duche$$, a Black woman just beginning her post-college life, feels the weight of it all.
“It’s been hard to create something that’s uplifting,” she says, “and I don’t want to write about despair. So I think my job with music is to create something meaningful and try to stay sane at the same time.”
Duche$$, whose real name is Denee Davis, has always been a writer. Like her friend and fellow rapper Brionne, she penned poems at a young age, filling up notebooks with original work while songs by A Tribe Called Quest scored every car ride to school. She started writing to beats while attending high school in DeSoto, but she never imagined rap was in the cards.
“I knew you could recite poems over rhythms, but I wasn’t sure how to turn that into a sound,” she says. So she kept writing, thinking one day she would perform some spoken word. She enrolled at Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university, and spent a few years DJing. Then, about three years ago, Davis’ rhymes were put on the spot.
“I was at my friend’s studio, and someone played a beat,” she says. “They told me to step to the mic, so I’m thinking, ‘I’ll recite some poetry. But no, they said, ‘You need to rap.’”
Davis started flowing, and she impressed both her friends and herself.
“It felt like it came naturally,” she says.
Looking back, Davis describes that moment as a sea change. She ditched DJing for a fledgling career in rap, adopted the moniker Duche$$, and started crafting songs that blend her poetic sensibilities with lo-fi beats. While Brionne makes bangers dripping with braggadocio, Duche$$ writes songs in which her emotional struggles are laid bare for everyone to witness.
On “Virgo Sun, Gemini Moon,” a track off her debut EP MOOD, the rapper talks about being trapped in her mind, hiding her true feelings and projecting a false image of strength. “Cooler” finds the artist wondering if anyone will truly stand by her, while the chorus of “Ridin’” includes the lyric, “Ridin’ with the homies sharin’ big dreams only prayin’ to God that the cops don’t kill us.” To listen to a Duche$$ song is to take a trip through the rapper’s anxious psyche, all while coasting on a smooth, infectious beat.
“The music that I make is me talking to me, and hoping it speaks to someone else, too,” she says. Her writing is often therapeutic, too.
“I write very well when I’m angry. Actually, I find it difficult to write when I’m not angry.”
And if there’s one thing that consistently makes her angry, it’s other people dictating what and how she should write.
“People will always tell you, ‘You should write like this,’” she says. “Especially with female artists. Everyone has something to say: How a woman should walk, how a woman should talk, how a woman should rap. But no, you have to do what you love. So leave us alone. We know who we are. Let us feel ourselves. It’s our time for us to feel ourselves.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to the rap scene, Duche$$ already has devotees. Brionne, with whom Duche$$ will soon release a record, calls the rapper “amazing.” JTubbs, an engineer, says Duche$$ didn’t need a notebook full of poems or rhymes when she came to his studio.
“She always comes with the best energy,” he says. “[She’s] open to new ideas and challenges. I remember she came to work on some new music with me, and she freestyled a whole hook off the top of her head. As a matter of fact, she freestyled on every song we collaborated on.”
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Duche$$ is bashful about her talent, but she'll admit that she has recently stopped comparing herself to other people.
“When you see someone you think is passing you up, it’s tempting to wonder, ‘Why can’t I run a little faster? What’s wrong with my legs?’” she says. “But I know who I am, and I trust where I am.”
And with trust comes gratitude. She knows she can’t solve the world’s ills, nor can any artist. But if she accepts that, and commits to her work, maybe she can make things a bit less cloudy for herself. Maybe it’ll help whoever is listening, too.
“I’m in a position where I can grow,” Duche$$ says. “I still have my legs. I still have my arms. I still have my eyes. And I still have my voice.”