On to the Next
Denzel Curry is a veteran in the body of a young man. After releasing back-to-back projects, one of the godfathers of SoundCloud Rap is ready to take a breather and plan his next chapter.
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
The Greeks had Zeus and the Romans had Jupiter. The reigning mythical figure in hip-hop is André 3000. Since bowing out from the spotlight, he’s become an elusive, fascinating presence. He’s spotted in the wild—wandering the streets of New York City or playing his flute at the airport—once in a blue. Just like the rarest of Pokémon, catch him if you can. Denzel Curry had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet his idol in 2014 at Art Basel in Miami. “He’s the God,” Curry says. “He’s the man!” Although convinced that the OutKast veteran had no clue who he was, at the time at least, he wasn’t going to let the opportunity go to waste. “I had to ask him certain questions: What made you keep changing for every album? What made you keep doing different flows? What keeps you going?”
He’s still giddy, telling the story six years later. It’s late afternoon at his cousin’s house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He’s lounging on the couch and his manager, Mark Maturah, sits next to him. Someone is clicking away on the two-monitor workstation at the far corner of the room and two guys walk in with plates of frozen french fries. A cat named Kirby languidly moves about, ignoring the general detritus. A hybrid between a bachelor pad and man cave, it’s definitely humbler digs than what Denzel Curry can easily demand at this stage of his career. But he likes being low-key, out of sight. “To be honest, I don’t want people to know shit about me,” he expresses. “Even the fans. I don’t want to be idolized. I just want to be respected for my work, what I do and how I do it.”
Curry is at a crossroads. At 25, he’s still young for a rapper, but he’s a verified O.G. in the canon of SoundCloud rap. “I’m a veteran,” he says firmly. “Everybody knows I’m a veteran—the whole game. Everyone knows what I’ve done.” Professionally, he’s, without a doubt, prolific. He’s known to drop rapidly successive releases including 2016’s Imperial, 2018’s Ta13oo, 2019’s ZUU and 2020’s Unlocked with Kenny Beats. That music often reflects personal adversity and hardship that belies his age. In 2014, his brother Treon Johnson died from cardiac arrest after being tased by the police. In June of 2018, longtime friend and rising rap star XXXTentacion was murdered in a deadly ambush. It shook Denzel. He got X’s same “Wing Ridden Angel” tattoo to honor him. The next summer, Curry chopped off his dreadlocks and came forward that he’d had a nervous breakdown. “It gets too much after a while.”
With his 30th birthday already in his sights, he’s planning his next chapter. Curry reveals that he has three albums left before he drops the mic; he isn’t trying to fall into the trope of the pathetic, aging rapper. Like his hero André 3000 knows, burnout is real and other creative pursuits are steadily calling. “I’m not trying to hold onto the same thing that I was holding onto when I was 16,” Denzel says. “You know, trying to make the same thing over and over.”
Denzel Curry is very cerebral; he’s constantly thinking and forecasting. One thing about the rapper that fans probably don’t know is that he wants kids. It’s something he actively thinks about. In conversation, he references his future progeny. “My dad was a great father,” he says. “So, I wanted to be better than him.” Denzel’s goal is to have his “first jit” at the age of 30, and he’s cognizant of and willing to drop whatever bad lifestyle habits he has before he becomes a parent. He won’t go into details, but it’s stuff he works out in therapy. “I want to make sure I’m able to eliminate whatever problems, habits I have now.”
That sense of parental responsibility makes sense within a musical context as well. Curry made his name as one of the forefathers of SoundCloud rap. Born and raised in Carol City, Fla., he rose to prominence as a teenage member of the Raider Klan, the rap collective founded by SpaceGhostPurrp. “It started with Raider Klan because me and Purrp were trying to unite the hood,” he recalls. “Like he was from a certain side of Carol City. I was from a certain side and so were the other members. So, to bridge that gap between all the hoods. Eventually it fell defunct, it fell apart. But you know, I learned a lot of stuff from being in there and I just continue with my life.”
After splitting from the Klan in 2013, Curry dropped his breakout record “Threatz,” which would usher him and his South Florida contemporaries as hip-hop’s most exciting denizens: Denzel Curry, Kodak Black, XXXTentacion and Ski Mask the Slump God represented the new, young fire in hip-hop. At the time, the cognoscente was slow to comprehend the lo-fi sound, dark aesthetic and rebellious spirit. But the kids sure got it. The rappers became streaming giants and cultivated ardent grassroots fan bases through a defiant, DIY ethos. They didn’t need the industry’s cosign or traditional hit records for it to work.
At some point, the establishment had no choice but to pay attention. SoundCloud rap was becoming critically and commercially viable; the breeding ground for unsigned talent. In 2016, Curry signed a distribution deal with Loma Vista Records, an indie label run by industry vet Tom Whalley. In 2018, the rapper’s Ta13oo charted on the Billboard 200 and R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts and he signed a full catalog deal with Concord Publishing. “I had that vision from a long time ago,” he asserts, looking back on the success he and his Florida peers experienced.
But things began to fall apart as the fabric of the crew unraveled. Kodak Black became synonymous with legal issues, ranging from allegations of sexual assault to drug possession. In November of 2019, he was sentenced to 46 months in prison for federal weapons charges. SpaceGhostPurrp and Curry had beef, exchanging several diss records, including the latter’s “SpaceGhostPussy (RIP Yams)” in 2016. As for Ski Mask, Curry says that he’s all but lost touch with him. But things took the darkest turn on June 18, 2018, when XXXTentacion was shot and killed in cold blood. Whatever fun, youthful energy that Florida rappers had managed to harness and share with the world seemed to die with him. The death marked a turning point for Curry. “X was the moment I realized this shit is real,” he admits. “It had me fucked up.” The party was officially over. “When I really started getting deep into this rap thing, I realized like it’s a bunch of bullshit. Some artists you think are cool are really not that cool. Some people are just full of themselves. You get a handful of people who are genuine.” It was clear that Curry had to find new pastures.
Hip-hop makes for strange bedfellows. Random studio run-ins can yield amazing results and frenemies can sometimes be the best collaborators. Three years ago, Curry left Florida and moved to Los Angeles, where he began to meet and work with new people, including Flying Lotus, Billie Eilish and Slowthai. One of those other new names was producer Kenny Beats.
Curry and Kenny, who has worked with rappers like Rico Nasty, ScHoolboy Q and Vince Staples, initially linked in 2018, through mutual friends. Kenny remembers them making four or five songs. Months later, he says that Curry returned and wanted the files for a specific track for ZUU. One little problem: That song was already promised to another rapper. Curry was not happy. “This rapper was actually bigger than me at the time,” Curry remembers. He won’t name names (neither will Kenny Beats), but his response was visceral. “I started cursing and flipping out. I was, ‘Yeah, it’s like, fuck Kenny Beats.’ I didn’t want to be his friend. I didn’t give a shit.” After about seven months of tension, cooler heads prevailed. “Denzel is a very sober, rational thinking kind of guy,” Kenny shares. “He’s not really the blindly stubborn type. I think once we gave it some time to breathe and talk it out, it was easy for us to come together.”
In August of 2019, they reconciled for Kenny’s The Cave video series. The studio session that they recorded would lay the groundwork for an unexpected project, Unlocked. “I did The Cave and then I just never left for three days,” Curry says.
The next three days can only be described as magic. The rapper and producer locked in, creating music in a simpatico manner. ”It was more of a back and forth,” remembers Curry. “Me and him had the same inspiration at the time; Wu-Tang Clan, albums like [GZA’s] Liquid Swords. He’s like a huge Madlib fan.” Kenny says that Curry pushed him outside of his comfort zone and let him experiment with his sounds. “He just trusts his instincts more than the average person,” Kenny conveys. “Like, he steps in and there’s no having a pep talk. I think he’s a force of nature and I’m really just trying to help direct the energy best.” Once they laid down “Diet,” they knew that they had the capacity to do a full project. “It’s really just a vibe,” Curry details of working with Kenny. “You got to be homies. You know, anybody can give you a beat, but if you like actually vibe with that person, you’re going to make something special and something good.”
Still, the rapper doesn’t particularly like being in the studio. It’s work, something he has to do. “I don’t like spending long stretches in the studio,” Curry discloses. “I want to go home. The more I knock out, the more I get to stuff I like to do.” Off-duty, that includes practicing his Muay Thai, going to the park, hanging with his girlfriend. Regular shit. “I was just work, work, work, work, work,” he says of his earlier years.
Now that he’s crossed that quarter-life threshold, he also wants to spend time on creative endeavors besides hip-hop. He loves film and animation. He was kicked out of art school in the 10th grade, but he’s always seen himself as an artist at heart. “I’m a good writer. All the music comes from here,” he maintains, pointing to his head. “So, I’m writing in my head. I have an imagination.” He’s friends with Shin’ichirô Watanabe, the anime mind behind Cowboy Bebop, and he’s been working on a graphic novel and voiceover work. “I want to be a cartoonist and writer.”
Before he’s ready to fully relinquish rap, Denzel Curry plans to release three more albums. The focus, as it’s always been, is to create complete bodies of work. “I always liked my album short,” he adds. “Ten tracks is enough. Enough to listen to.” Unlike the current zeitgeist of long tracklists, the rapper doesn’t want listeners to cherry-pick among a dizzying number of songs. He looks at the old school artists that inspired him—The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg—and he wants fans to experience his work from start-to-finish. “I just want you to enjoy my music the way you enjoy a film, you know?” he says. “Like it’s meant to be consumed that way. It’s not meant to be like fast food. It’s meant to be like, damn, what did I just have? A full course meal.”
That meal is still in its prep stages. He hasn’t figured out the sound or direction quite yet but live instrumentation has been on his mind. “I want to actually use real instruments. Just wanting to do it.” For his next music, he’d love to work with musicians Terrace Martin, Flying Lotus, Madlib and, of course, André 3000. After putting in work consistently for so long, he’s ready to let this next project cook, metaphorically speaking, for a minute. “The last two albums were in short time frames,” Curry reveals. “So, this one, I’m going to really sit down and take my time to do it.”
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2020 issue including our Future cover story, in which he speaks on his Life Is Good album, Lil Yachty discusses his new album, Lil Boat 3, and the respect he deserves, Van Jones talks about his love for hip-hop, Show & Prove interviews with Jack Harlow, Key Glock and City Morgue, YBN Cordae in What's Happenin, Rapsody talks about getting her flowers in an exclusive interview; G Herbo speaks on building up his community like Jay-Z and Meek Mill, Royce 5'9" considers his next move with Eminem for a new Bad Meets Evil project, plus there's a brewing, new hip-hop scene in New York, a look back at Yo Gotti's music catalog, Studio Time with Rico Nasty, Guapdad 4000 in Define Me and more.
See Exclusive Photos of Future on a Yacht for XXL Magazine's Spring 2020 Cover Story