Fearless self-discovery: Denzel Curry is writing his own rap destiny - Features - Mixmag

Feeling elevated: How fearless self-discovery inspired Denzel Curry to write his own rap destiny

Denzel Curry speaks to Aneesa Ahmed about drum 'n' bass influence, challenging police brutality, and exploring his unfiltered self through music

  • Words: Aneesa Ahmed | Photography: Jonathan Weiner | Art Direction: Vassilis Skandalis | Styling: Kaitlyn Vitug | Styling Assistants: Devin Pornel & Athena Mesina
  • 19 April 2022

Denzel Curry is never scared to be himself. "And I stand by that," he says confidently through a video call from the backseat of a car making its way to Denver's Mission Ballroom for the opening night of his month-long US tour. Poised, Denzel speaks with forthright candour. Honesty is at the core of his artistic ethos, and he’s carried it with him since emerging onto the rap scene aged 16. “I’ve been honest in my projects throughout: ‘Imperial’, ‘Zuu’, ‘Nostalgic 64’. You’ve never heard me rap: ‘I’m gonna shoot a N****, kill a N****”, because I’ve never shot somebody in my life. I can speak on fighting because I actually fight, I can speak about anime because I watch that, I can speak on Japanese culture because I’m interested in it and understand it, I can speak on Black struggles because my family [and I] went through it and talked about it. I’m only speaking stuff that’s true to me.”

“But right now,” he continues, “I feel like I elevated; I feel like I went through a lot of turmoil and hard shit in order to get to this point. A lot of this shit was stemmed by my hand, but because of that I had the option to write the right destiny for myself and not the wrong one.”

The 27-year-old Floridian's newest album 'Melt My Eyez See Your Future' sees him delving inward more than ever before, alongside a honed vision and progressive ear for sound. The 14-track LP is an integral look into Curry's personal journey of emotional awareness, and a cementing of his position as a flagbearer of underground sounds in modern rap music. While comparable to his highly acclaimed 2018 album ‘TA13OO’, which also pairs gritty lyricism with a commanding ebb-and-flow of energy, ‘Melt My Eyez’ reaches higher. It is an eclectic and intrinsic look into Curry's perception of himself, bringing in sonic influences ranging from neo-jazz to drum ‘n’ bass. “All the stuff that I blended within this project is pretty much stuff that all my friends know me for — my personality shines through more in this one. This is probably going to be one of my favourite [Denzel Curry] eras in terms of making music. I’ve stepped out of my realm for this one.”

Since he first began rapping as a teenager, Denzel's list of accomplishments is long. He's released five studio albums, five mixtapes, two long-form collaborative projects with Kenny Beats, three EPs, featured on the soundtrack of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, gone viral for covering Rage Against The Machine’s 'Bulls On Parade' for Like A Version, performed in arenas alongside Billie Eilish, and hit a hot streak of guest verses, collaborations and releases across multiple aliases. Young Raven Miyagi, Denny Cascade, Aquarius'Killa, and Zeltron 6 Billion are some of his alternative monikers, all of which have garnered him praise.

The process of reaching this point took more than a decade of hard work, self-discipline and creativity. Curry has consistently sought out ways to improve himself musically and lyrically. “I remember when I was making ‘Nostalgic 64’, I started blending Southern hip hop with the sounds that I always liked, like Big L and shit like that, because they were saying some wild shit and I wanted to say some wild shit.”

“I think the first time people ever heard me rap like that was on ‘Dark and Violent’ with J.K The Reaper and Nell,” he says. “Burn the fingertips off, replace the dental / Left the golden bullet magic in his coufie, no his temple / That’s engraved, leaving corpses / In graves, Glock 17 cutting fades / Barber, we dumped the security in the harbor / Then we switched the identity, chose the name Leroy Carter,” he raps over our video call, holding great pride in every syllable that leaves his lips.

‘Nostalgic 64’ was Curry’s debut album, released in September 2013 following the disbandment of Raider Klan, the Carol City collective Denzel was part of, founded by one of his all-time inspirations SpaceGhostPurrp. The record features guest appearances from J.K. The Reaper, Robb Bank$, and Yung Simmie, among others, but marked the beginning of Curry coming into his own. “At the time, people like Rob and Nell and Semi, they were lyrically sharper than I was. Even when SpaceGhostPurp did his lyrical stuff he was sharp. I just wanted to prove that I was just as good or even better than them.”

Denzel has had a penchant for playing with words since he was a child. He used poetry as a tool for escapism, with wordplay and rhyme becoming an avenue for processing complex emotions. He credits his teacher Miss Paris for helping him on this path. “She was the driving force because she saw my potential and saw the talent I had that the other teachers couldn’t see. She took it upon herself to harness that talent, she took me to a lot of poetry slams. I was looking at these people on stage and their poetry was amazing, I was amazed by the calibre. One dude was reading this poetry off his paper and was talking about his gun and he said this line ‘once I lifted my hand, it was the hand of God’ and everyone was like ‘damn!’. That was the first time I had ever heard something so crazy. And that gave me the confidence to really express myself.”

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In middle school, this love for words evolved into a love for rapping. “In sixth grade, I started seeing my homie Demitrius King rapping and that led to me meeting [close friend] Premi Sterlin at the Boys & Girls Club, and he's the one who taught me how to use wordplay how I do.”

This love for wordplay and rap was nurtured during his time with Raider Klan, something he credits as the making of him, alongside his mixed experiences of education. He spent two years in Miami's Design and Architecture High School before being expelled at 16 and continuing his education at Miami Carol City Senior High School, where he joined Raider Klan and began working on his debut album. “I mean just going to art school, getting kicked out and then going back to an all-Black school is what made me, me. That was so important in my life. On top of that, you’ve got Raider Klan, and that’s what shaped me. Over time I refined myself, I was getting different experiences.”

Denzel began his musical experimentation by recording on a $10 microphone from Walmart, and was drawn to Raider Klan and its founder SpaceGhostPurrp for their own DIY inclinations. “I liked how dirty [the underground sound of Raider Klan] was. It was really hard to get into a studio in Miami because motherfuckers are broke, you know? Once we heard these underground tapes and what Purrp was doing, and the fact he didn’t have a real microphone, we were like ‘we could all do this shit.’” After the collective was initially founded by rappers SpaceGhostPurrp, Dough Dough Da Don, Kadafi, Muney Junior, and Jitt, its membership swelled with artists such as Denzel Curry, Chris Travis, Eddy Baker, Xavier Wulf, Ruben Slikk, Lofty305 joining the fold.

Due to the state's diversity and multiculturalism, Curry defines the Florida sound as a "melting pot" of numerous soundscapes. He attributes Spanish studies at school for teaching the area's adolescents a different language, which Raider Klan members began to incorporate into their music. He is proud of the part the collective played in creating this distinct sound, but insists that "Florida would be at the top of the game" if the famed SpaceGhostPurrp and A$AP Rocky feud had never occurred.

“If Purrp and Rocky had never fallen out then A$AP and Raider Klan would have been a thing, because it was A$AP Raider Klan when they were together. If that beef would have never happened, then we would have had a stronghold on the game. We could have been a powerhouse, we could have been One Nation like what Tupac was trying to do. People would recognise everyone from the whole scene, and we wouldn’t be seen as ‘Raider Klan is the underground and A$AP is more mainstream’, everybody would have been on the same playing field.”

What ultimately allowed Denzel to bypass this perceived barrier, and appeal to both the underground and the mainstream, was the range of interests he channels into his music, often extending beyond the rap sphere. Famously, Denzel is into anime, martial arts, movies and TV shows, and references all of these things within his projects. Whether it be Star Wars, Cowboy Bebop, Dragon Ball Z, SpongeBob Squarepants, Samurai Champloo, or YuYu Hakusho.

He was always branded as the nerdy one by peers, which influenced the way he was seen by others, and even led to people invalidating his Blackness. “People saw me [as a nerd] because I was into things that they were not into. They would always say that I didn’t “act Black” in the way I carry myself. First of all, what the fuck does that mean? What is ‘acting Black’ without giving me an ignorant answer? Just because I like some stuff, that doesn’t stop me from being Black. Like, if I get pulled over it’s a wrap, it’s game over. People saying that I don’t seem Black hurt me, they don’t know my life and they don’t know me. But I kept doing my thing, every gangster has a weird little brother like me.”

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Being branded as the nerd never damaged Denzel’s perception of himself. Instead he felt compelled to lean into rapping about the influences that make him unique, courageously boasting about his eclecticism in the face of shaming. On his latest album, this extends beyond courage into fearlessness — no longer an act of defiance, it has become a byproduct of Denzel simply sharing what he loves. One example is the incorporation of drum ‘n’ bass, which he initially explored in 2015 EP ‘Planet Shrooms’ and brought back in ‘Melt My Eyez’ on tracks such as the slowthai-featuring ‘Zatoichi’.

“There’s this track from Cowboy Bebop called ‘The Real Man’ which has so much drum ‘n’ bass influence, and when I heard it for the first time I was honestly mind-blown. So that really got me exploring and listening to sounds by artists such as Goldie, Kemistry and Storm back in 2014 or 2015; I love Goldie. I incorporated those sounds when I made ‘Planet Shrooms’ and I wanted to incorporate them again because it fits! Even OutKast did drum ‘n’ bass, that’s what made me want to go back into it. At first [with ‘Planet Shrooms’], I wasn’t sure how well it went. But honestly, I just thought to myself, rather than being unsure, I'll incorporate drum ‘n’ bass sounds again regardless of what people think.”

Although he’s never been to a drum ‘n’ bass rave, he said he’s open to the idea and is waiting for an opportune moment. “I won’t be doing any drugs or whatever!” he says. “But I do love the music, so I’d definitely go to just listen if anyone asked.”

On the new album, we also hear influences from jazz, acid jazz, traditional hip hop, neo-soul, funk, synth-pop and punk. Not all are explicit — they make their way into the tracks in the form of hard basslines, guitars, synth-driven melodies and groovy beats. After going on tour with Billie Eilish, Denzel got a taste of what his music sounds like on big stages, and wants to “make music for arenas”.

“I want to do arenas too!” he exclaims. “I gotta make something that’s so big that everybody can come together and be like ’oh my god I’m melting’, you know.”

He did this by “studying Kanye”, and understanding the way in which commercial-friendly sound palettes can be infused with his own style. He credits ‘X-Wing’, ‘Aint No Way’, ‘Sanjuro’ and ‘Troubles’ to the influence of Kanye's ‘Graduation’. “I wanted something that sounds big, the bass needs to sound big!”

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This sonic evolution is matched by an emotional maturation that has been years in the making. Denzel experienced traumas in his late teens and early twenties, including his parents’ divorce and losing his younger brother to police brutality, which he wasn’t able to process properly while constantly on-the-go with recording and touring.

We heard him struggle to deal with these issues on 'Imperial’ and ‘TA13OO’, when he lyrically crescendoed into a state of fury and pain before plateauing into confused melancholy and repeating the cycle. Denzel is more secure on 'Melt My Eyez’, acknowledging that he's struggling with these difficult feelings and narrating audiences through his emotional journey.

“I didn’t know how to talk about it in my early twenties, and even before then. Everything was really personal and I was scared I was going to be judged for it, you know? Once it came out, I realised that me being vocal and open about my traumas helped a lot of other people. I just continued that, I’m going to keep doing what I do.”

He learned how to speak about his feelings coherently through therapy, which he lyrically chronicles on his latest project: "I pay $180 to talk to one lady / She been regulatin' on how I feel / Describe it as raw and real / I'm dealin' with all the ills / I'm tearin' up like I'm on Dr. Phil” he raps on ‘Walkin’. Therapy taught him to accept and own up to the consequences of his actions. “The biggest thing I’ve learned in therapy is that I’m the writer of my own destiny,” he shares. “I’ve also learned that I don’t make mistakes unless I make actual mistakes — I make bad decisions and good decisions. Bad choices are just choices that you regret later on, and you can call them mistakes because of that regret but that’s not a true mistake.”

Handling classic hip hop and boom-bap rhythms with ease, the album reflects on himself and the trauma that created him, attacking his demons from a variety of intriguing perspectives. On ‘Angelz’, Curry confesses, "I spent my whole life lookin' for validation / In today's age, it would've led to my cancellation", and on the fantastic opening track ‘Melt Session #1,’ he uses metaphor to cast himself as "Strung out on love addiction and groupies when souls collide," expressing his guilt for his treatment of women.

On our video call, he’s now out of the car and backstage in Denver awaiting instruction on the next steps of his day. He sighs, and he admits: “The way I was treating women and objectified them was honestly disgusting. I talk about that in my music because I felt as if I needed to talk about it, I needed to own up to the stuff I’d done.”

He’s not afraid to speak about his actions in a matter-of-fact way. Rather than looking uncomfortable and self-conscious, he’s collected and reflective. “The reason why a lot of people get cancelled is that they don’t own their decisions, they try to shun them or hide them. I’m like: no, I’m not these people. I did some shit and I’m gonna let people know and own up to them.”

Most of the introspection on his latest album is done on tracks that contain no features. But while he admits that initially “I didn’t actually want any features or collaborations at first for this album”, he says forming and nurturing a plethora of relationships was the most rewarding aspect of its creation. Most of the vocal contributions were with people he has worked with before and occurred naturally, including slowthai, T-Pain, Rico Nasty and Thundercat: “Me and Thundercat just hang out, we watch cartoons together, and if we feel like making a beat we will. You know him as Thundercat, I know him as Steve!”

“The real MVPs are the producers of this album,” he adds, naming Pro Era’s Powers Pleasant, Dot da Genius, Goldstein and JPEGMafia as stand out contributors. “Out of all of the producers on this project the one that surprised me the most was Powers Pleasant, he was there the most," he notes. “We were always having fun and sharing stories, and it was always a good time. It was a way for us to make sure that we were making the best stuff possible. Him and Shawn K were always at the studio with me. And us three are Aquariuses!”

Beyond his artistry, Denzel has used his platform to highlight the importance of issues that hit close to home personally. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Denzel was outspoken against the oppressive nature of the police. He went to the same high school as Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed in 2012 by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, whose actions and acquittal at trial were seen as emblematic of the prevalence of racially motivated violence in the US which the police have been complicit in both failing to address and directly partaking in. Denzel’s own brother Treon Johnson died in 2014 after being tasered by police. “Trayvon Martin was a Raider Klan fan, which we didn’t know until after his death. Two of his close friends told my close friend Oliver. Hearing that from them stuck with me to this day, and it struck home for me.”

“I actually ran into Trayvon’s brother a few years after we lost both of our brothers, and he thanked me for speaking out on all of this. And I said: “Well I lost my brother to police brutality too”, so I feel everything you’re coming from. I’ve been outspoken about it for a while because I see it on the daily. But now it just happens and it hits too close to home - so fuck the police. I stand by that. One bad cop makes the whole thing look bad. They condone this behaviour, you’re supposed to serve and protect but all you protect is your own. All cops are bad.” He understands that with his platform, he has the capacity to raise awareness toward issues that matter to this community.

Denzel always plans for what’s coming next, but is always open to growing. He wrote the words to ‘Melt My Eyez See Your Future’ on a sheet of paper in October 2018, beginning the creative vision for the project that led to learning more about himself and the world within the process. He’s tracked his own progress beyond just music and gives himself credit for all the work he has done. “I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he says gleefully, addressing the stunningly shot video content accompanying some of the tracks on ‘Melt My Eyez’, including a Blade Runner style video for ‘X-Wing’, and old Western-style imagery for ‘Walkin’. These cinematic visuals, many of which were produced or co-produced by Denzel himself, are a step in a different direction from the cartoon visuals he provided audiences with 2020’s ‘Unlocked’. “I started to understand film a lot more between ‘Unlocked’ and ‘Melt My Eyez’. I understand the angles and transitions.”

One other area that he is adamant about exploring next is the feeling of love and being able to beautifully sing to convey this powerful emotion. “I haven’t explored that feeling in full detail, but when I do it I want to be able to nail it. To figure that out takes a lot of soul searching, I need to really dig and figure out what I actually love in order to convey it properly. Also, I can sing man! I can really sing, and I have a voice that I want to use beyond just doing aggressive raps. I want to sing introspectively about my emotions.”

“I don’t want people to idolise me either,” he states. “At first, I wanted people to idolise me because you see people like DMX, Kanye and Jay-Z being idolised. But now I’ve realised, I don’t want that.” He explains that there is a lot of responsibility in idolisation, and quotes advice that was given to him by his mother: “My mom would tell me that in the bible they said ‘don’t worship false prophets or idolise people’, and now I understand why. I won’t lead you anywhere if you idolise me, I can only share my experiences and hope that you relate. I bleed like you, I could die like you and I live like you. The only difference is that you know me for who I am and what I put out.”

One thing is for sure, Denzel Curry now understands himself better than he ever has before, and is comfortable with the vulnerability he is offering to the world. The Floridian rapper is excited for what is next, he’s excited to be on stage, and while his life “is not a bed of roses”, in the words of Jay-Z, he’s excited to keep sharing the journey.

Denzel Curry's 'Melt My Eyez See Your Future' is out now, get it here

Aneesa Ahmed is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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