“I think about how my art is going to be reflected when I’m gone.”
This is something Denzel Curry said to me during our conversation just moments before his stellar performance for 5,000 people in Boston this past Friday in support of Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep tour. Denzel has been an artist that I’ve held in high regard over the years because I’ve been able to recognize his dedication to the art, and to hear him talk about his passion for the craft was inspiring.
Denzel Curry has been rapping for about eight years now, and by the young age of twenty-four, he’s already passed huge milestones in the game of rap due to his impressive work ethic and unwavering artistic integrity. Not only does he have an incredible discography under his belt, but he’s already garnered a noticeable impact on the genre of rap at such a young age, all while constantly growing, evolving, and refining his output in the process.
On a widespread scale, many fans became aware of Curry after his track “Ultimate” turned into a viral internet sensation, becoming the “water-bottle-flipping” song just a few years back. Even this track though, as big as it is, is much more than just a trend — it’s an energetic and intricate banger, featuring through-the-roof energy and impressive rhyme schemes that seamlessly act as a great display of Denzel’s raw talent. Furthermore, “Ultimate” hinted at the fact that Denzel would stick around for longer than most expected, outliving his “15 minutes of fame” due to his dedication to the art and his desire to become one of the best to do it. This moment of virality was a turning point, one that put more eyes on him than ever, and gave him even more drive in pursuit of proving himself to the world. He said himself during our conversation, “most people thought I was going to fall off after ‘Ultimate’, and I’m still here. It never happened.”
From there, “Ultimate” was placed on his 2015 double EP 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, which painted Denzel as an otherworldly character, capable of speaking his mind while creating grimy, feverish sounds. The knack for storytelling that he proved on his mixtape Nostalgic 64 continued to shine through on 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, a project that only displayed Denzel’s talent on a larger scale. It started to show off his versatility, not only through bangers, but also through more laid-back, icy cloud-rap cuts that showed Denzel’s refusal to be put into a box by listeners and critics, alike.
2016’s Imperial was an important stepping stone for Curry, not only because it proved his artistic capacity to create a complete body of work in the form of an album, but because Imperial clearly laid out a blueprint that other contemporary Florida artists were influenced by. Most notably, it’s the aggressive delivery and angry energy featured on tracks like “ULT” and “Gook” that propelled Denzel from just an artist with lots of potential to an artist that changed the state of contemporary trap and rap music. To say that these sounds have steered the direction of Florida’s latest generation of burgeoning stars is an understatement, and it all arrives at the self-assured hands of Denzel Curry.
With this, Curry also proved his versatility on Imperial and the projects that followed it. His intimidating and raw delivery — as exemplified on the 13 EP with tracks like “Bloodshed” and “Hate Government” — became one of Curry’s x-factors that no other rapper in the game could command just as well or even imitate. Here, he proved to be a true force to be reckoned with, but also one willing to push limits, as the boundary-pushing production matched his cold-blooded deliveries.
He showed his other sides though, most notably on the following album, TA13OO, one that displayed Denzel’s versatility more than ever with a mix of aggressive, introspective, and melodic moments across the record. The ambitious, three-act project featured a wide array of sonic atmospheres in songs like “BLACK BALLOONS”, “SIRENS”, and “BLACK METAL TERRORIST” that listeners could relate to on a variety of emotional planes. The artistry that Denzel teased on 13 came to fruition on TA13OO, from the extremely polished and detail-oriented cover arts and visuals to the impressive instrumental breakdown outros on tracks like “CASH MANIAC” and “VENGEANCE”. Needless to say, TA13OO was a major artistic milestone.
Now in 2019, ZUU is the newest edition to Denzel’s discography, and makes for his most direct and cohesive project to date — one that perfectly encapsulates everything that Southern Florida means to Denzel. From the cover, featuring Denzel sporting a Marlins jersey standing in front of an emerald green Chevy Impala and a ZUU logo that pays tribute to the legendary Poison Clan, to the album’s wide array of southern sonic variety, ZUU embodies Southern Florida in the best way possible.
This hometown pride exhibited throughout the album certainly wasn’t a coincidence. During our conversation, when asked about the considerable amount of time he’s spent away from home while living in Los Angeles, Curry mentioned to us that he felt homesick more than anything throughout the making of the project. There seems no better way to channel this homesickness than by paying respects to his hometown, Carol City, and making it a central focus for ZUU.
Curry’s love for his city has always been ingrained into his music, but he’s never expressed his passion for his roots in such determined fashion until ZUU. As Denzel said, “I was already doing it subconsciously without knowing I could do it, so if it was controlled, let me see what would happen.” This time, he covered a variety of the elements of Florida that shaped him all the way up until the start of his rap career. “ZUU” is Carol City itself and “RICKY” is his father, where it all started. “SPEEDBOAT” represents Miami beach, and “SHAKE 88” represents the prominent club scene in Southern Florida, where many local artists get their breaks. He also includes drug and cartel stories on “BIRDZ”, along with the “YOO” skit, which shines light on the slang that was used in Dade County. Perhaps most important is the Blackland radio skit that Denzel included — a nod to a career-changing discovery that helped to birth the Denzel Curry that we know today.
Asserting his prowess even further, from the shimmery “WISH”, all the way to the violent “P.A.T.”, Denzel covers the wide range of experiences that one can expect after spending time in Southern Florida. He perfectly executed the vision he was going for, and when speaking with us before the show, he even acknowledged some fans’ disappointment, understandably yet humorously saying, “it’s not their fault. They just don’t understand Miami, because they’re from like Connecticut or some shit.”
To drop something like ZUU now, with more eyes on Denzel than ever, proves that he doesn’t have to leave behind his past. In fact, he can embrace it. ZUU is soaked in Florida rap influence and Florida culture in general. He’s sitting above five million monthly listeners on Spotify, hitting the mainstream without sacrificing any integrity after nearly a decade of making music. ZUU shows that Denzel doesn’t need to abandon his passion for his upbringing; he can still honor the place that made him who he is by shining light on the best and worst of Southern Florida, and he can still make hits while doing it. His integrity and his values not only as an artist, but as a person, are inspiring, and for that reason and more, he stands as the type of artist we need more of today.
Seamus Fay and I had the chance to catch up with Denzel right before his performance in Boston, and you can check out our conversation below.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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So you’re on tour with Billie Eilish, you’re performing for bigger, younger crowds than usual. What’s the atmosphere like on this tour compared to your usual shows? Is it a huge contrast for you?
Of course it is. First of all, I don’t perform in front of like thirteen-year-old girls and younger, you know what I mean? Especially parents, because you know how my shows go. Like, if parents come there with their kids, and their kids are like fifteen or sixteen they understand, but usually it’s little girls and my shows are normally like dudes and sweaty guys and shit you know?
Yeah just mosh pitters. But yeah that’s usually how my shows go, guys with the mosh pit shit and I’m getting tired of doing that, to be honest, I’m sick of it.
That’s not what I want to base my whole career off of. Just mosh pits and shit, I want everybody to have a good time, boys and girls included.
Is there a change in approach on the performing side?
Yeah, it is a difference because it’s more hand movements, and getting them into it, and having them listen to what I actually have to say.
Because you’re not as close to the crowd.
Exactly, but even when I have shows like that, my sets are pretty much the same. They’re a story. I pick the tracks from each timeline, you know, from Nostalgic , from Imperial, from ZUU, from TA13OO, whatever timeline it is, and I just put it all on front street in my set so people can listen to it.
How are you liking the tour overall?
Oh, I love the tour. I’ve always wanted to be doing stadiums. I just didn’t know who or what was going to do it, and it ended up being somebody I influenced, which was Billie. It’s just crazy because you know, now that she gave me the spotlight to actually see what I could be doing, I gotta follow through on that promise.
With most tours, like the first one with the Underachievers when it was me, Dillon Cooper, and Azizi Gibson opening up, I couldn’t backtrack from there. I had to move forward and that was what drove me to start doing my own shit. Then you got tours like Joey Badass, I had to follow through on that and then Imperial ended up coming out and I started doing similar rooms that he was doing. Then, when I went on Ferg’s tour, I think that one is what really changed everything because it got canceled in the middle, which was the driving force for me to finish TA13OO. Right when I finished TA13OO, and right when it was released, after “Clout Cobain” and all the hype around that, I started doing the same rooms Ferg was doing.
ZUU and TA13OO are two completely different releases — we have the multipart and concept-driven TA13OO, then the more clear cut, mostly freestyled ZUU. They were released less than a year apart though. How is the creative process different for such vastly unique projects even though they weren’t made that far apart?
With ZUU, I already knew what I was going to say. With TA13OO, it was more tedious. You had the light part, the dark part, the grey part. It was very tedious work. And the real part that everybody loves is the middle part, that middle part is like the bread-and-butter right there, you know? Even to me, that was my favorite part of the album, the middle part. It wasn’t the dark part, it wasn’t the light part.
The light part was cool, the dark part…of course I can do that on command, but the middle part had the most substance, it was the most versatile, and it was the best showcase of skill. That’s what made it more tedious. Because I had to find my happy place and do the happy part; I had to go to a dark place and do this part. But in order to do that part, I just had to engulf myself in it, just let it happen, just let it be. And then with ZUU, it was just like this is all Miami shit. And it was actually fun making that one — that one I just made for fun.
Is that balance of serious to fun projects important to you?
Of course it is! Because now everybody is sad all the time. Who makes a sad album in the summer? Imperial came out before the summer, matter of fact. TA13OO, what in the fall? Ending of summer?
Yeah, I think it was the end of July.
Yeah it came out at the end of summer, the beginning of fall. Like no bro, I’m not sad. The fuck am I sad about? I already got that out. Everybody wants the angry Denzel. Angry, spittin’ fast, and lyrical Denzel. And I’m like, I got tired of that shit.
And they can just go back and listen to that too.
Exactly. They have that. It didn’t leave. Y’all act like I totally erased my whole discography.
Just Google it.
Google that shit. Let me make what the fuck I want to make, and you, just be a fan, support my shit, and shut the fuck up. That’s my mindset. Or just like, be happy for me, because y’all kept telling people I’m underrated, I’m underrated, I’m underrated. Okay. When I’m not underrated, what am I, overrated? Do you hate me now because I want something better for myself? Well, I thought the name of the game was to do something better for yourself, not to backtrack and be a bitch.
The crazy thing about it is, when you either no longer do the music you’re doing now, or when you die, that’s when they’re like, “he just had nothing but solid projects.” But you were probably the main person talking shit about my projects when they were coming out. And then it takes a death, or something like that, for you to realize that I was fire all along. Nah, like my shit or leave me alone.
What made you tweet “Honestly, my best album will never be created because people will always have an opinion even when I think it’s perfect”? As an artist, how do you deal with sometimes polarizing mixed reactions to your work?
Do you know a critic does? A critic takes a really good album, something really good, and finds something wrong with it. Their job is to find something wrong with it. There could be nothing wrong with it, it could be perfectly fine, but they’ll find something wrong with it.
Do you think over the years you’ve paid less attention to critics?
No, I probably pay more attention to them now. I mean in the beginning, I didn’t give a fuck about a critic, fuck a critic. If you didn’t like my shit, suck my dick. Now it’s just like, okay people pay attention to critics before they pay attention to my album, so they want to hear what the next man thinks about it before they even click play.
In the past, you’ve talked about not being just a rapper, but an artist. Why is this so important to you?
Because the school I was going to, which was Design and Architecture Senior High, made me think I failed as an artist. It made me feel like a failure as an artist, like I’m not an artist. When this is something that I always wanted to be.
Why did it make you feel like a failure? What was it?
Because I got kicked out. They kicked me out. They didn’t like my art. They didn’t understand me. And all the kids, you know, were all so caught up in their fuckity fuck shit that they were like “oh I’m the best artist, I’m the best artist.” And really, I felt like I was a really good artist. Even if somebody could do acrylic or something better than me, I could do something better than them, and they weren’t recognizing what I was doing as an art form. You get what I’m saying? So when I got kicked out, I took whatever I learned from that school, and applied it, to use it against them, and show that with or without them, I could be the best artist ever.
Do you hear from people from that school still?
Oh yeah, they want me to come back and talk to their kids, and I constantly decline. Only a couple teachers asked me. There’s one cool teacher there, his name is Mr. Charles. And most of the teachers that I really liked don’t even work there anymore. My literature teacher, Mrs. Paris, she doesn’t even work there anymore, she’s a vice principal now. Mr. Martinez was my other literature and language arts teacher, and he’s not even there no more.
Mr. Charles is the only one there, and he was the one that was really cool and shit, you know. And he’s been supporting ever since I left because the kids come there saying they love Denzel Curry. And he tells them how I used to go to DASH, and how kids really didn’t like me. But, when I got kicked out, they loved me. Because I did something they couldn’t do.
And then, I had friends that were going to DASH that were defending me when I was getting famous around the time that “Threatz” and all that came out, like my homie Tyler. I’m very enthusiastic, I’m very in-your-face — that’s me, that’s my personality. But nobody liked that. They were like “oh he’s sweaty, oh he talks too much, he’s annoying, he’s weird,” this, that, and the third. And I’m thinking like, “it’s an art school, we’re all weird, what the f***? What makes me so different?”
I was outcasted by the outcasts.
I don’t even know what you do at that point.
What do you do at that point? I was like I get outcasted by outcasts, damn, I’m thinking about suicide. But if it wasn’t for Blackland Radio 66.6, I would have been dead.
Speaking of that, you pay homage to SpaceghostPurrp with the Blackland 66.6 interlude on ZUU. Would you speak on Spaceghost’sPurrp’s influence on you early on and how he shaped you as an artist?
When Mike Dece showed me Spaceghostpurrp, it was like, man. I didn’t understand. I mean I understood, because I fuck with that type of shit, and I understood it because I listened to Odd Future, but just him being from Carol City is something I never understood because I thought you had to be from Cali or some crazy place to be doing this type of stuff.” But here he was, from my city, doing it. That’s what was the driving force, and then when I talked to Purrp online and I joined Raider Klan — ‘cause we always used to talk on Facebook, before he was with Rocky and all that shit — I had to prove that I wouldn’t let the opportunity go to waste in the same way I have to prove myself here to Billie.
Do you think about numbers when you’re making music?
Numbers are very important. Numbers of people at the shows, numbers of money you’re making, numbers of merch that you’re selling. Numbers are important. Numbers of streams, everything. Because I’m trying to get Grammys and plaques, you know? They just told me “Clout Cobain” went gold in Canada or some shit. So that’s gonna be my second gold plaque. And Mark [my manager] said “that’s not a real major accomplishment.” And it’s not, because motherfuckers keep calling me underrated, so they’ll never give me a chance. You feel me?
How do you find that balance between caring so much about the art but also being conscious of the numbers?
I’m an artist. Numbers or not, I’m an artist. I think about the next project. I think about what I’m going to do, I think about how I’m going to do it, and I think about my discography. I think about how my art is going to be reflected when I’m gone. I don’t want them to hear a dud album or get a dud music video, I don’t want none of that shit. So, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to make the best art possible and put it out, so even if I don’t have great projects, I have a lot of really good projects and they could just go down and be like “damn, all of these projects are sick.”
Do you think about legacy a lot too? Especially because you’ve been so influential, you must be conscious of it.
You know, if I said I don’t think about legacy a lot, then I’d be lying. But I know the legacy is just going to happen.
It comes naturally too, with everything you’ve put out already.
Yeah, the legacy is already there. It’s just, I have to be bigger, to really be a part of that legacy. Just like Jay-Z has a huge legacy, that’s the type of legacy I want. I want to be the first trillionaire. There’s a lot of things I want to do.
First rap game Bruce Lee, that’s my main thing. Second thing. I want be a trillionaire. Then, after I make enough money and do whatever I do, learn martial arts to a T where I’m like “yo I’m just dope as fuck at that shit” and know how to control my mind, my spirit, my body, everything like that, I’m just going to walk the earth. I’m just going to walk, because nobody’s going to touch me. Nobody. They’re like “you’re a trillionaire, what are you doing walking with no shoes?” N***a I don’t care. I’m a human bro, what are you going to do, rob me? I’m not even going to walk with a wallet. I don’t need it, I’m just going to walk. I’m good everywhere. My face is clean.
And then, I’m going to walk until God puts me to where I need to be.