“Home” is a complicated concept for just about anyone. For Denzel Curry, it has to be an absolute mental labyrinth. Curry is a native of Carol City, a neighborhood in Miami Gardens. He’s also a former member of Raider Klan, the local early-’10s rap crew that went on to have a seismic effect on American underground rap. Curry was (and is) an integral part of the chaotic South Florida scene, and he watched as the whole SoundCloud-rap scene that he helped birth conquered the world. His influence goes beyond rap. Curry is spending this summer playing arenas, opening for Billie Eilish, the teenage pop star (and past Curry collaborator) who has absorbed and internalized the whole SoundCloud-rap aesthetic. This is something like Muddy Waters opening for the Rolling Stones, except Curry, the Muddy Waters in this equation, is only 24 years old. Curry released his first mixtape when he was 16, and he’s spent the better part of the last decade shaping the current cultural climate. And he still isn’t old enough to rent a car. That’s amazing, and that doesn’t happen if Curry is from anywhere other than Carol City.
But Carol City has also rained trauma on Curry that most of us can barely begin to understand. Seven years ago, Trayvon Martin, a high-school classmate of Curry, was murdered, and that murder became the beginning of an enormous national news story that still hasn’t died down. Four years ago, Curry’s older brother Treon, a backyard fighting star, died after being tased and pepper sprayed by police. Last year, Curry’s former roommate XXXTentacion was murdered while sitting in his car; he was 20. That’s a lot for one 24-year-old to process. And all these things happened in or around Carol City. Carol City has brought Denzel Curry a whole lot of pain. And yet ZUU, Curry’s excellent new album, is a tribute to Carol City and its environs. It’s complicated. How could it not be?
Curry has a history of making complicated music. When he was still in high school, he was probably the most thoughtful and technically gifted rapper in Raider Klan, a crew that built its reputation on chaos and mystique. And when the crew fractured and he ventured off on his own, Curry became even more incisive and insightful. Less than a year ago, Curry released TAI300, a heavy and ambitious three-part album with big ideas about darkness and light and the area in between. Compared to something like that, ZUU is Ramones-level short and simple. Its 10 songs blast by in less than half an hour. In a recent FADER interview, Curry claims that he freestyled almost the entire thing. But even working on instinct, Curry makes rich and heady music.
In that FADER story, Curry says that ZUU is “some real Miami stuff” and that it came from living in Los Angeles and feeling homesick: “It goes from the sounds of where I grew up, to what I was raised around, to the people I was raised around, to the sounds that pretty much shaped the person I am.” And it’s true: ZUU explores the history and context of Miami rap the same way that GoldLink’s great 2017 album At What Cost explores that rapper’s own DC roots. And Miami has a rich rap history to explore.
Miami was an underground rap hotbed long before Raider Klan, and Curry knows it; in his “RICKY” video, he wears a shirt advertising the regional ’90s heroes Poison Clan. And on ZUU, Curry adapts a ton of those old styles: rowdy ’90s fight music, luxe ’00s cocaine fantasies, circa-now li-fi bass rumble, even the strip-club music that Miami invented in the ’80s. These songs never feel like genre exercises. Curry throws himself into all of them, rapping with fury and passion and precision. And there’s real care put into the album’s construction. All of the guest-rappers on ZUU are from the Miami area, from young peers like Kiddo Marv to visiting dignitary Rick Ross.
All through ZUU, Curry pays tribute to his Miami rap ancestors: “I’m a real-ass nigga from the 305 / I was raised off Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies.” There’s a defiance in the way he speaks the names of these idols, all of whom faced the disdain of the greater rap world and of the authorities within Florida: “This what you made me / Carol City raised me / Trick said ‘I’m a thug,’ that’s the hate that you gave me.” Sometimes, he even invokes those heroes. Rapping next to Rick Ross on “Birdz,” Curry snarls what could’ve been a great Rick Ross punchline: “Lord forgive me for my tendencies / Got an evil plan for my mini-mes.” And when he pays tribute to XXXTentacion, he brings his own chaotic tendencies: “Put the mask on like a luchador / My dog didn’t make it to 21, so I gotta make it past 24.” Imagine being 24 and feeling the pressure to carry on for your dead friends.
But Curry doesn’t just vent his angst on ZUU. He talks plenty of shit, too. On “Shake 88,” a song that he admits he needed help writing, Curry raps about strippers, a whole new subject for him. And he’s also got a way of talking about nerd shit in fun and inventive ways, but using that nerd shit to threaten violence. Consider: “I’m the Raiden of rap when they tell that boy ‘Finish him’ / It’s nothing but fatalities, them crackers gonna sentence ‘em.” Or: “Beef is a wad of meat / Bitch, this ain’t Aqua Teen.”
On “RICKY,” a song about the advice he got from his parents and from his brother, Curry starts off one verse by calling back to a line — “Your mama ain’t shit, your daddy ain’t shit” — that he first uttered on Nostalgia 64, the minor-classic mixtape that he released in 2013, when he was still in high school. Curry’s career has already been rich enough to support that kind of self-referentiality. But ZUU isn’t a victory lap. It’s another great record among many. Right now, Curry is one of the most exciting people in rap. And he is now also part of the history of Miami rap. If any future Miami rappers want to make an album like ZUU where they pay tribute to the region’s greats, then they’ll have to acknowledge Denzel Curry.
1. Bhad Bhabie – “Spaz” (Feat. YBN Nahmir)
How many disgustingly hard songs is Bhad Bhabie going to have to make before we, as a society, accept her as the great fucking rapper that she is? It’s been a year and a half, bitch, and she’s still going! That beat! That piano! That excitable glass-cutting chirp! Nahmir has the best line on here: “Ay, Dani in the cut, she say ‘hi, bich’ / If you talking to the Feds, you gon’ die, bitch.” But Dani goes off, too: “On probation, but I’m still ’bout that life / Left that Uzi, but I still got that knife / Stevie Wonder on a bitch, it’s on sight / Want a pic just to boost up your likes / You can’t read, telling me I don’t write / Call Nahmir, he gon’ end your whole life!” Just a tremendous effort all around.
2. 70th Street Carlos – “RIP” (Feat. 1TakeJay)
Sadly existential life-is-cheap jokes. Lines about getting blowjobs while watching Child’s Play movies. “Gas a nigga up like I just farted on your bitch ass.” “You ain’t in the streets, you a motherfucking tweeter.” “Bitch, I made The FADER,” rhymed with “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Rap music is incredible.
3. NSG – “OT Bop”
I have no idea what these Londoners are talking about at least 60% of the time, but they’re endorsing a dance that looks not even a tiny bit cool over a beat that sounds like playing QBert on acid. I love it.
4. Calboy – “Chariot” (Feat. Meek Mill, Lil Durk, & Young Thug)
The young Chicago sing-rapper Calboy’s new project Wildboy is ridiculously solid throughout, but it peaks at the end, as three canonical circa-now street-rap titans join him to do crackly, emotional high-pitched singsong skipping over, what, a zither?
5. Homeboy Sandman – “West Coast”
Homeboy Sandman and Aesop Rock have been habitually making great music together for a few years, and so it feels somehow wrong when Sandman raps on an Aesop Rock beat that Aesop himself does not also rap on. Still great, though. I love how Homeboy Sandman can be doing textually rich mile-a-minute raps that suddenly turn into Cypress Hill or Tupac interpolations.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
I love MCA's response to the Cincinnati police chief calling the Beastie Boys' music "garbage" in 1987 pic.twitter.com/4FwR6llW1T
— Eric Harvey (@ericdharvey) May 31, 2019