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Navigating The Light And The Dark With Denzel Curry

We Talk To The Florida Rapper About X, Anime And His Amazing New Album

On August 27, 2018

This month, Vinyl Me, Please Rap & Hip Hop is featuring TA13OO, the new album from Denzel Curry. You can sign up to receive our exclusive edition of the album right here.

Below, you can read an interview with Curry. We sent our staff writer, Michael Penn II, to interview him in his studio space in California, and got him to open up about everything from SpaceGhostPurrp, XXXTentacion and how people didn’t catch on to him till he started singing.

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Somewhere in La Brea, California, there lays a studio compound sharing an address with a dog grooming business. The heat index is high, but Denzel Curry, 23, has his Black skin covered by a black beater tucked into black pants with black shoes. The only colors are found in the ends of his dreads, lest we forget his black nails. Top it off with a subtle nose ring and a mustache — “Cuz it separates boys from men, ya feel me?” — and Curry’s curated a pure Zeltron 6 Billion chic: the final level of swag achieved through a newly calibrated confidence to finally do what the fuck he wants no matter what his detractors may aim his way. Once the air conditioners quiet their hum, the Zeltron — Curry’s Super Saiyan alter-ego — jumps out: Just over a week removed from the release of TA13OO, he knows he’s got “the best album out the gotdamn year” and has spent that time openly daring anyone to tell him different. To Curry’s surprise, even Joe Budden spread the good word on his podcast, asking forgiveness for his ignorance; that’s how he knows the album’s made an impact already.

It’s August 6, meaning Mars Retrograde is boomin’. (Stay with me here.) Denzel Curry, the Aquarius Killa born in February ’95, is thuggin’ the planetary shift out and he didn’t even know it was happening. (And he believes in that astrology shit, ask him.) I feel it with him, me being born in January ’94, and dutifully inform him that this particular Retrograde means Mars has spent the summer in Aquarius. It’s a time where we find new ways to control and express our anger, yet other folks are finding us aggressive and difficult to deal with. It’s the prime emotional foreground for the way Curry sprawls his arms across the studio couch like a wartime general with a busy La Brea intersection in the background. It’s the very room where Curry recorded most of TA13OO, so it feels like a command center: He’s regenerating, focusing his energies for the next step in cementing his legacy for Florida, his home and the rest of the world.

In the wake of the untimely murder of Jahseh “XXXTentacion” Onfroy — a close friend and collaborator of Curry’s — X’s disciples are seeking new voices to lead the energy forward. Polarizing as X was, the most polarizing we’ve seen in this new generation, Curry simply calls the new energy “Super shit,” or Super Saiyan shit. He describes a recent conversation with Florida underground forefather and early collaborator SpaceGhostPurrp — the RVIDXR KLVN founder whose BLVCKLVND RVDIX 66.6 mixtape remains a seminal work in the first post-Datpiff wave of rap in Florida and beyond — as a wake-up call to seize the reins of where Florida is going. And for X’s legacy, Curry owes him in death what they held each other to in life.

“I seen what Jahseh did: Me and him was like, ‘Long as it’s a friendly competition,’” Curry says. “He did what he had to do while he was alive, but I’m gon’ still keep that competition while I’m still alive. I’ma surpass what X did; not even no crazy shit, cuz that’s what we talked about. He was like, ‘Long as it’s a friendly competition, it’s all good. Long as it ain’t no animosity between us.’ And I was like, ‘Bro, I fuck with you.’ And then we was about to join forces on top of that, so it only made it more powerful, but now? I’m still gon’ keep my end of the bargain because you my dog, and we left on a good note, so I’ma keep it that way. And I’m gon’ show you that I’m gon’ be the strongest and the most flexible and the illest one to ever come outta Florida, period.”

Curry’s other focuses while in Zel mode include, but aren’t limited to: getting his body cut up, eating better, muay thai classes, and being as comfortable laughing at himself as he’s prepared to roast anyone in his sightline. He takes the internet in jest since he knows the majority of its haterism will never manifest offline, especially when his music’s good. He’s also the type to slightly jab himself in the midst of the most intense tangents, going from a Best Album rant to a joke about his hair: “If I look like a spider, cool! I heard that shit so many times, it’s kinda stupid… but, it’s accurate!” As a RVIDXR KLVN disciple — he was a member in the group’s early days before going out on his own — Curry’s had a career an overwhelming majority of folks his age would kill for; he’s 23 and a OG, already five projects and several tours deep. He’s even tasted the double-edged sword of virality when “Ultimate” caught the meme treatment, a moment he found funny at first, then annoying promptly after, once it became about the first 10 seconds and flipping water bottles.

But the larger dialogue still wouldn’t shift to how quality Curry’s works are, or how fire his rapping is; instead, he was met with the one-hit wonder treatment like he hadn’t spent his teens working to be great, like this was an accident. I often wondered if Curry himself felt overlooked or underrated; once I wonder aloud, I’m met with a swift “Fuck no! People are just stupid!” Curry knew not to capitalize on the lightning strike; he chose the slow path of longevity, floating his name around the industry until everyone woke up. It’s the veteran tactician mentality that makes each passing SoundCloud headline humorous; every week, someone new started the underground, attempting to wash such a recent history. Even as Curry’s distance from the tag grows more apparent, he knows the truth and won’t bite his tongue any longer.

“All these niggas claimin’ that they started SoundCloud rap, and this that and the third: Suck my dick, y’all just got famous off it,” Curry says. “Y’all really gon’ say that shit? Y’all ain’t start shit; we started it for you. We just opened the door for you so you could get famous like, ‘Hey, look at me!’ Like, we opened the door for a lot of these niggas. The only reason why [they’re lying]: They just signed a deal first, got mainstream first when everybody was like, ‘I’ma stick to underground.’ Me? I was like ‘I’ma sign, but I want my masters, I want my shit. I want creative control, I don’t give a fuck about money.’”

TA13OO is the most realized, calculated Denzel Curry album by a mile; where Imperial honed in on the darker tones of his music, TA13OO offers the Dark, juxtaposed with fresh lenses on Curry’s experiences. We dwell in the Light indulgence of his successes and attempts to achieve clarity, and an even deeper Gray to illustrate the collisions and contradictions of our world. The same RVIDXR markers are in play: 13 as the B in Black, a number of misfortune and superstition with 13 songs to match. The Black Balloon as an open image to represent us, its pop symbolizing our disappearance from the earth. And the Denzel we see here is Zel doing what the Denny Cascade and Raven Miyagi of past eras couldn’t do: anything and everything. He taps further into melodies, he’s still rapping ferociously and pointedly at our systems of injustice, and he invites us further into the development of his paranoia and the resurgence of traumas left undealt with. Past the surface’s extremities, it’s truly an album for everyone.

“I want creative control, I don’t give a fuck about money.”
Denzel Curry

“You know what’s crazy? Nobody really started to listen… until I started singing,” Curry observes, noting the year 2017 was when he realized melody dominates over all. “When I started singing on “CLOUT CO13AIN,” everybody went back like, ‘Wait, what the fuck did I just miss?’ I been tapped into [melody,] I just haven’t used it enough, and on this album, I turnt it all the way up. And even turning back to being calm… being versatile, being simple. I made simple songs for simple people. I made hard songs for harder, aggressive people. I made catchy stuff for people that like catchy stuff. All of them were different sounds, but all of them had a message. I covered each base, because when you listen to the album: If there’s a track you don’t like, you’re gonna have a track you do like. That’s how I wanted the album to sound.”

The video for “CLOUT CO13AIN” is the product of Curry simmering in calculation, reflecting the world back at itself. The same messaging Curry’s known for when he slices the world apart, lifted by a twisted funhouse JGramm beat and an infectious chorus designed to seep into the psyche as the circus engulfs us in our everyday struggle. This time, Curry’s dancing for the fiending audience, every desperate plea met with applause until the final bell tolls, Curry killing himself live on stage. It calls back to the tales of Mantan in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and the scene in Sorry to Bother You when Cassius Green’s forcible freestyle in a billionaire’s house party devolves into him screaming “Nigga shit!” over and over to the crowd’s raucous approval.

It’s also very post-WorldStarHipHop, adding an eerier subtext to the gratuitous abuse: In the hour from X’s shooting to him being pronounced dead, a video of his lifeless body flooded the internet. And in November of last year, a similar video surfaced of Gustav “Lil Peep” Ahr nodding off to sleep before being pronounced dead outside a scheduled Tucson tour stop. “CLOUT CO13AIN” isn’t Curry’s first dabbling in the WorldStar effect: He deems his placement of the “ULT” video on WSHH as the most calculated move of his career so far.

“The message I had in the song, and the imagery I had on the video, just showed Black people, like, ‘This is what I’m talkin’ about,’” Curry says. “And it just made people feel like, ‘Damn, this is the first time I ever seen a video on WorldStar where it had the imagery of some nigga shit, but he’s talkin’ ‘bout some real shit.’ Cuz niggas could say real shit, but it’s street shit. And WorldStar has the platform to take the African-American culture and shift it in the greatest way possible. Cuz… I still watch WorldStar. WorldStar is literally like the Black entertainment center; it’s like post-BET.”

The connections run deeper than the middling of a Black middle-schooler on a 56k modem: Curry’s Carol City upbringing granted him the opportunity to spectate the backyard fights of viral hood folklore, pioneered by neighborhood superstars like Dada 5000 and the late Kimbo Slice. Curry’s brother, the late Treon “Tree” Johnson, was on the fight circuit himself; a cursory glance on YouTube or the 2015 Dawg Fight documentary on Netflix finds Tree in the ring with Dada screaming and officiating, family members congregated around a roped-off patch of grass somewhere in West Perrine. He looks just like Denzel, dark-skinned with braids and golds.

Tree was 27 when he was Tased to death during a struggle with police in March 2014. Considering his and Curry’s mother works in the juvenile justice system, Curry considers Tree’s murder as a slap in his mother’s face. Curry’s thorough disdain with law and order is but a soft way to put it: “Fuck the law! The law wasn’t made for niggas, period. The law was never made for a nigga.” A noted anime head, Curry considers the U.S. justice system from the perspective of the villain Nagato (or Pain) from the Naruto universe: “Justice is just a disguise for vengeance.” If Pain’s purpose was for the world to experience hurt and hatred with the goal to end further war and suffering, why haven’t any crooked cops in this country met their end for murdering Black folks with impunity?

This same thinking gives a grisly image on “Z1RENZ” with J.I.D and Billie Eilish, where Curry compares the U.S. empire’s intersecting systems of antiblack oppression to a falling airplane “with a good girl gone bad girl who went gay cuz of date rape.” When I attempt to push back on the nebulous parallel of that image, Curry doubles down on how he feels, and how Black folks never get justice. We drift into the saga of Christopher Dorner, and end up remembering Trayvon Martin — a schoolmate of Curry’s — and how George Zimmerman’s become a celebrity by murdering a Black teenager for clout. It makes JAY-Z’s line on Drake’s “Talk Up” — “Y’all killed X, let Zimmerman live… streets is done” — even more salient in Curry’s mind.

“It’s true!” Curry exclaims. “You could lock up all the niggas that killed X — I’m glad they did that — but listen to what I said, though: They locked up all the niggas that killed X. They ain’t lock up the dude who killed Tray[von]… c’mon now. Y’all niggas killed X, but y’all can’t kill Zimmerman? Shit, I’ll kill Zimmerman if I had a chance to do it! The fuck? Prolly not in this position I’m in right now… but at a different time in my life: If I had the option of murkin’ this nigga, I’ll murk him. No question.”

As we continue on, X naturally reappears in the conversation, clearly in the forefront of Curry’s mind. I recall how I saw the news after a late-afternoon shower and spent the rest of the day watching my timeline take a side between reveling in X’s death as punishment for his abusive history and mourning the impact he left on his fans and the potential for what he could’ve been. A middle didn’t seem to exist; I sent my take anyway. By now, I’m weighing whether or not to share it, but Curry’s had enough of his own memory. He lives in the middle ground, speaking truth to power in the light and dark, believing in the balance and the Rule of 2. X isn’t a talking point to him, but a friend.

‘TA13OO’ is a collision course through Curry’s brain: It’s not concerned with right or wrong, but what’s right in front of you and what could be if you’re prepared to face the darkness.

“Yes, I know [X], and I seen all sides of him,” Curry continues. “I seen it all. So by the end of it, it was literally trying to understand what his life was and not tryna judge him. Cuz I don’t know any of these kids lives; I don’t know my fans’ lives, they don’t know my life like that, they only know shit I give them and vice-versa. So I can’t judge them; they can’t judge me, either, but they still do it anyway. I paint my nails, still judge me. I dye my hair, still judge me. I wear golds, they still judge me. I don’t give a fuck! Fuck people! Real shit, fuck people! People ain’t shit! I fuck with people, I give ’em the real and that’s what it is, and it’s up to them if they wanna listen or not. But if you wanna be totally honest: Everybody thinks this every day. People ain’t shit! People ain’t shit, and they’ll never be shit until somebody else say they’re the shit. The power is with people, but people don’t know what to do with power once they get it. Once they have freedom of speech, everybody say reckless shit now. So I can say ‘People ain’t shit’ because I’m statin’ a fact. I’m not sayin’ everybody ain’t shit — cuz there’s people that I do like — but a majority of people ain’t shit!”

When I ask Curry how he handled power when he first got fame, he quickly admitted to abusing it: “Bitches, drugs, drinkin’, bein’ lit. But that shit was… deteriorating me.” As he prepares to accept responsibility for carrying the wave that X left behind, right when the game’s finally catching on to what Denzel Curry’s been about his whole time, how will he handle this power when it arrives?

“I’m just gon’ make the illest shit and that’s how it’s gon’ be,” Curry says confidently. “And nobody can tell me otherwise, cuz I’m me, man. I’m always gon’ be me, and I encourage everyone to be them. And if people get offended with my words, maybe for you to wake up, you need to get offended. And in order to offend somebody, I will have to break a few eggs. And if I break a few eggs, you gon’ be mad at me… are you mad at me because I’m saying the truth or are you mad at me because you’re offended? But either way it go, if you’re offended, that means I did say something true.”

Watching Denzel Curry think in real-time gives the perfect insight into his ethos: choosing hard work with high reward, driving ugly truths to the forefront and giving a damn whomever impedes the final destination. TA13OO is a collision course through his brain: It’s not concerned with right or wrong, but what’s right in front of you and what could be if you’re prepared to face the darkness. It’s an album from a time of Curry confronting his own traumas: relationships gone sour, family life and friendships gone awry, finally grieving Tree’s death. It’s the first undisputed Denzel Curry album by Denzel Curry. Now: it’s Zeltron Season, which Curry confirms because his hair’s up on a Monday in L.A. He’s yet to find his peace or remove himself from the darkness that gave him his greatest work. But if he doesn’t accomplish the mission, meeting an untimely death before fulfilling his promises, he knows Florida will know they found a Super Saiyan in him. One condition: don’t come to the funeral if you counted him out.

“I’m refusing to die just so y’all can say y’all fucked with me. No!” Curry says. “Cuz I know you didn’t fuck with me when I was alive; the only ones that did were my fanbase. All of y’all who was sayin’ I fell off and shit: When I die, I bet you’ll be playin’ all my shit! Just appreciate the people that you have in your life while they’re alive.”

Profile Picture of Michael Penn II
Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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