Denzel Curry Made A Freewheeling, Therapeutic Rap Opus

Adrian Villagomez

Denzel Curry Made A Freewheeling, Therapeutic Rap Opus

Adrian Villagomez

Rap careerism can be an insidious thing. It’s not easy for rappers to stand out from the pack in the first place, to build up fanbases and gain critical and industry support. When that does happen, it’s a little too easy for a whole lot of rappers to fall into comfortable middlebrow stasis — getting booked at festivals, collaborating with other rappers at the same level, touring clubs, making decent money. There’s nothing wrong with that path. But in a genre that thrives on excitement, on the spirit of the new, that kind of stasis can kill enthusiasm.

I don’t know exactly when I stopped getting excited about new Denzel Curry music. It might’ve been two years ago, when Unlocked, Curry’s collaborative album with Kenny Beats, came out and didn’t light my world on fire. Or maybe it was before that, when he first showed up on a Madden soundtrack. In any case, I’d gotten used to the idea that new Denzel Curry records would not grab me with the urgency of the music that Curry was making when he was barely out of his teens. In a couple of days, Denzel Curry will release a new album that proves me wrong.

Denzel Curry had to overcome a whole lot of odds to get to the point where he could fade into comfortable middlebrow rap stasis. A teenage Curry first emerged as part of the Raider Klan, the insurgent South Florida underground rap crew who resurrected flickery, forbidding early-Three 6 sonics. When Raider Klan broke up, Curry got looser and more psychedelic while continuing to stoke the mosh-madness fury of the whole SoundCloud-rap wave that he influenced. Curry screamed through cheap microphones, just like his peers, but he also clearly cared about rap history and technical dexterity. He wanted to be Kendrick Lamar just as much as he wanted to soundtrack teenage skate-rat riots in concrete-bunker nightclubs that sit by highway offramps.

Over time, Curry’s music got bigger and more ambitious. 2018’s TA13OO was a three-part self-interrogation about mental illness and suicide. 2019’s ZUU was an emotional tribute to Curry’s family and his Florida rap roots. Those records had ideas, but they also worked on an anthemic, instinctive level. Curry’s music was high-minded, but it was directed at the same kids who would memorize pill-gobbling $UICIDEBOY$ lyrics. Like so many of his peers, Curry used his music to process all kinds of trauma; for Curry, that included the death of his beloved older brother, tased to death by Florida cops. His music was curious, but it was raw and intense, too.

ZUU was almost three years ago, and I haven’t heard that same intensity from the music that Curry has made since then. For a minute, he seemed to be making industry moves. He cut his hair. He toured arenas with Bille Eilish. He came out with a few loose tracks and guest-verses that didn’t leave a big impression on me. Whenever he showed up, he wasn’t bringing that same reckless young energy. And he’s still not doing that. Curry’s new album Melt My Eyez See Your Future isn’t about reckless young energy. It’s about something else.

When Curry rode to almost-fame as part of the SoundCloud rap wave, a wave that he’d helped kick into motion, he was living out of control. Since then, most of Curry’s former peers have burned out or faded away. Curry has been working on himself, and he’s also been looking for ways to push his music in different directions. He spent years working on Melt My Eyez, chasing different sounds and ideas, trying to will something special into existence. He’s succeeded. Melt My Eyez See Your Future is a sprawling, ambitious record that makes good on Denzel Curry’s vision.

When ZUU came out, Curry said that he freestyled most of the album in the studio. It’s pretty clear that he did not freestyle Melt Me Eyez. It’s a dense, considered album — the work of someone who’s been undergoing serious therapy for a few years and who wants to put what he’s learned to use in his art. Sometimes, that means admitting his own problems in a genre where those same problems are often celebrated.

On “Melt Session #1,” the first song from Melt My Eyez, Curry raps over a misty, woozy beat from jazz great Robert Glasper, and he spends most of the track working through his own shortcomings: “I dedicate this to the ones I hurt/ It’s time to get my spirit right on earth/ Before my sins become a evil curse/ Conquer thirst/ Can’t revert to who I was at first.” He talks about objectifying women, manipulating people, and being “strung out on love addiction.” He rhymes “accountability” with “take responsibility.” Later on, even when he’s talking shit, those confessions reverberate.

Something similar happens on “Walkin,” the album’s first single. “Walkin” starts off as jazzy, mellow boom-bap, and Curry raps in a darting, playful flow that feels very ’90s. Halfway through, the beat switches up into a trap lurch without losing the astral soul sample that powered the first half of the song. Curry switches his flow up accordingly, putting bounce in his voice. On the song’s first half, Curry talks about a world where people like him are set up to fail. On the second, he talks about how important it is to keep struggling on regardless. The song’s video is a sort of sci-fi Western where Curry uses a laser to guy down a guy who’s supposed to be John Wayne even though he intentionally looks nothing like John Wayne.

I liked “Walkin” when I first heard it, but it didn’t have the same immediate catharsis as something like “Ricky,” the amped-up lead single from ZUU. Maybe I just hadn’t changed my expectations to meet a version of Denzel Curry who was no longer interested in making bangers. It took a stoned late-night headphones listen for “Walkin” to really sink in as the bold and thoughtful formal experiment that it is. The other singles followed suit. “Zatoichi” is a woozy, giddy drum ‘n’ bass track that recalls the mellow ’90s jungle of, say, LTJ Bukem. The brand-new “Troubles” has Curry and an incandescent T-Pain grousing about being broke over the “Funky Drummer” break. I was not expecting either of those left turns, but they set the stage nicely. Melt My Eyez See Your Future, it turns out, is really nothing but left turns.

In the press release for Melt My Eyez, Denzel Curry happily points out that he never really screams on the album. It’s true. His voice gets a little loud and hoarse from time to time, but he used to mostly live in Waka Flocka Flame territory, and he’s left that behind. Instead, Curry has cast a wide net of collaborators and made something that trips dizzily across the landscape. Consider “John Wayne”: Denzel Curry rapping about systematic inequality over a staggering, gurgling JPEGMAFIA beat while Steven Spielberg’s daughter coos contemplative nothings in indie-girl voice. How does that happen? And why does it work?

Curry has talked about being inspired by 21st-century rap-canon fixtures like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and To Pimp A Butterfly, and Melt My Eyez does have some of that same conceptual or stylistic reach, even if it’s not as assured. On the album, Curry works with jazz giants like Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, and even the album’s most conventional rap beats are still zonked-out and pointed inwards. The album’s weirdest track is probably also its shortest: “The Smell Of Death,” where Curry raps in a pitch-shifted squeak over a melting-fusion beat from Thundercat. Thundercat only produced the one song, but Curry has said that Thundercat was around when Curry was making the whole album and that he served as a crucial sounding board. This makes sense. There’s a whole lot of self-interrogating on Melt My Eyez, but the album also has a sense of playful looseness that seems perfectly in line with Thundercat’s whole thing.

It’s not an accident that Melt My Eyez has two consecutive tracks, “Sanjuro” and “Zatoichi,” named after mythic samurai-movie heroes. It’s also not an accident that the songs with Saul Williams and T-Pain features show up back to back; you can practically hear Curry in the studio, enthusing about how nobody has ever had an album that swung straight from the slam-poetry figurehead to the prince of Auto-Tune. And he should be excited about that. That kind of decision is weird and cool — just like the decision to rap over chilled-out drum ‘n’ bass, or to get deep about his own failures on the first song of his new album.

Denzel Curry is still young; he just turned 27 last month. He still has a few dorked-out impulses, and I don’t think he’d even object to that characterization. (Once upon a time, it seemed novel for Curry to keep throwing anime references into his lyrics. Now, damn near every rapper does that.) There are a few lovable forehead-slap lyrical moments on Melt My Eyez: “Ain’t no way I was gonna take what people sell me/ Run the jewels ’cause I kill a mic on any LP,” “The USA is a cold place/ Cold, cold world and we don’t even got a North Face.” But that kind of goony cleverness has always been part of Curry’s package. If he didn’t have a couple of clunkers in there, he wouldn’t sound like himself.

Denzel Curry does still sound like himself, even though he’s clearly pushing himself into different spaces on this album. He’s clearly tried very hard to make a classic, and I’m not sure he’s fully gotten there. But he has tested himself, opened up his possibilities, and raised his ceiling. He’s taken big swings, and those swings have connected. Curry didn’t have to stretch himself out like this, but it’s resulted in a very good rap album that might even turn out to be great once we all get a chance to live with it a little longer.

One of the collaborators who appears on Melt My Eyez See Your Future is J.I.D, the young Atlanta star. I put J.I.D on the same level as Denzel Curry; he’s one of the most talented rappers of that generation, even if all of his potential isn’t fully realized yet. Right now, J.I.D has a top-10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The problem is that the song in question is a garbage-ass Imagine Dragons collab from the soundtrack of a Netflix cartoon about elves or some shit. It’s easy to imagine a world where J.I.D decides that this kind of cornball Spotify-core track is his meal ticket, where he just goes off and makes that. Denzel Curry isn’t immune to those cornball tendencies. He’s got a song on that same Netflix-show soundtrack. He’s got another song with Glass Animals. Curry has made himself available for that kind of thing, but judging by this new album, that’s not the kind of rapper that he really wants to be. Instead, Denzel Curry is aiming for the heavens. He’s not settling for anything. I love to see it.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Bfb Da Packman – “Can’t Blame Ye”
I wasn’t expecting this fucking guy to be the only person to come up with a cogent Kanye West defense, but here we are: “I be in my feelings, too! I can’t even blame Ye! My bitch left me? On God, I’m a act the same way!” I’d be curious to see Packman’s version of a Kanye-style freakout, but I’d rather see Packman be happy. Drake should hurry up and give this guy his feature already. His career’s almost over!

2. Sada Baby – “Bop Stick”
I had no idea that I needed to hear Sada Baby over the “Children’s Story” beat, but it makes sense. Slick Rick is an all-time great rap character, and so is Skuba Steve.

3. Bankroll Freddie – “Broke ASF”
Bankroll Freddie better never see my bank statement. Me ego couldn’t take it.

4. Guapdad 4000 – “Cheap”
Guapdad 4000 better never see my bank statement, either. I don’t know if Guapdad is really the superhuman scam artist that he loves to portray, but anyone willing to rhyme “Ethereum” with “Nigerian” scares me to death.

5. Iblss – “Bebe’s Peace” (Feat. Quelle Chris)
This beat makes me feel like I’m swimming through a Windows ’95 screensaver. This is a good thing.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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