Status Ain't Hood

Denzel Curry, Traveling At The Speed Of Thought

There’s a moment on “Percs,” the stunningly venomous fast-rap tirade that Miami rapper Denzel Curry released earlier this summer, where Curry lets loose on the mumble-rap hordes: “These dumbass niggas, and they don’t say shit / Sound like ‘durr durr durr,’ you like, ‘Oh, that’s lit.’” Curry is hardly the first rapper to call out the tsunami of young rappers currently colonizing the streaming charts. But Curry is coming from a different place than, say, the 60% of New York rappers who seem to look at the SoundCloud-rap aesthetic as a personal affront. Curry is closer to it. They learned it from him.

At 23, Denzel Curry is already an elder statesman. When Curry was a teenager, he joined Raider Klan, the chaotic and always-mutating collective surrounding the Florida rap enigma SpaceGhostPurrp. In the early years of this decade, Raider Klan, working underground, carved out their own aesthetic — a sort of raspy, cultish internet-kid take on the flickering lo-fi occult rap of early Three 6 Mafia. It took time, but that sound eventually sunk its fangs into a whole generation of Florida kids. Those Florida kids, in turn, sunk their fangs into a whole generation of American kids. In the past year and a half, that old Raider Klan sound has turned into the insurgent SoundCloud-rap wave. And many of those kids can trace their ideas back to Curry directly; the late XXXTentacion, for instance, was once a roommate of Curry’s.

On “Percs,” Curry takes credit for that sound even as he repudiates it, letting loose on “all of them niggas I birthed, tryna put me in a hearse.” He sneers at his younger peers choices, both musical and not: “Get it straight, I innovate, you ad-libs on a 808 / Don’t need a tattoo on my face cuz Denzel is a different race.” It’s a masterful fuck-you song. If Curry never explicitly names his targets, it’s because those targets are implicit. He knows that we know. And it makes for a hell of a flex, Curry letting a whole generation of young rappers know that they’re not worthy of his influence.

Last week, Curry released an ambitious new album called TA13OO. This itself is an interesting development, since “ambitious album” hasn’t generally been part of the SoundCloud-rap playbook. Curry released the album in three parts, over three days. Those parts are all supposed to correspond with different moods: LIGHT, GRAY, and DARK. It doesn’t quite work out that way. The songs on the LIGHT portion of the album might have a lighter, woozier feel than the others, but the lyrics don’t really follow that. On the album’s very first track, Curry attempts to comfort a girl who was molested as a child.

Scattered through the rest of the album, there are plenty of moments just as stark. At one point, he wails, “Why my brother calling to me?” (Curry’s brother Treon Jonson was tased to death by Florida police four years ago.) Elsewhere, he clumsily attempts to equate black Americans to “a good girl gone bad who went gay cuz of date-rape.” There’s a lot wrong with that metaphor, but it’s exciting to hear a young rapper, one who was once mostly concerned with finding psychedelic ways to describe his own greatness, attempting to widen his scope, to rap about things larger than himself: “Speaking honestly, we living in colonies, CNN sit-comedies.”

More to the point, it’s exciting to hear a wide-ranging, passionate, adrenaline-firing work from a young rapper who really cares, deeply, about rapping. On TA13OO, Curry references the music that Ice Cube was making before he was born. He’s the rare SoundCloud-rapper who probably cares what SoundCloud-rap punching bag J. Cole thinks of his music. (Cole’s furiously talented protege J.I.D guests on “Sirens.”) As a rap technician, Curry pushes his voice in as many different directions as he can, but he favors a throat-shredding roar that he can still use to deliver impressively agile syllable-bursts. And you can practically see his synapses firing in every different direction at once. On TA1300 for instance, Curry references N.E.R.D., the foundational anime Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Cartoon Network show Chowder, Shaquille O’Neal’s free-throw percentage, the late-’90s WWF butt-splasher Rikishi, the video game Sly Cooper, and the 2007 indie movie Juno — all one one song.

Curry doesn’t force those references. He doesn’t give off that too-clever vibe, like he wants you to feel smart for catching all his allusions. Instead, his music feels like the work of a restless brain, one that’s consumed so much culture and media that it all comes frantically, erratically bubbling up every time he opens his mouth. “Yeah, I want to evolve,” Curry told the Ringer last year. “But I don’t want to grow up.” And TA1300 isn’t a mature work, exactly. But it is the work of a rapper who’s starting to outgrow the sound that he helped will into creation. “Eight years in the game and I never rode a wave,” Curry fumes on “Percs.” He’s right. The wave rode him.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. YG – “Handgun” (Feat. A$AP Rocky)
YG uses his voice so well — turning it into a pinched, bluesy singsong, or steering into the grit of his own bark. He always been limited in a lot of ways, and yet he’s consistently one of the most riveting mainstream rappers working. He makes his gifts work for him. It’s really something.

2. Nef The Pharaoh – “Big Boss Chang”
The rappers who never get enough credit are the ones who have figured out how to ride a beat, to stay out of its way. Nef is one of those. He flexes beautifully, but his greatest gift is for finding a great beat and figuring out how to augment it, not to dominate it.

3. Smokepurrp – “Nephew” (Feat. Lil Pump)
The SoundCloud-rap kids have discovered the Valee flow. This is a good thing.

4. Sada Baby & Mazerati Ricky – “Google My Name”
Sada Baby works best when he’s trading bars with a pretty-good-but-regular rapper, so it can stand out even more when he starts growl-purring about how his gun has teeth like a alligator.

5. Ghostemane – “D(r)ead”
Travis Barker is now playing drums on Ghostemane songs, which seems about right.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO