Denzel Curry is bringing his fight to the mic
“Yo shan, I don’t even know where the venue’s at, my guy!”
Denzel Curry is asking for directions to the huge music venue Terminal 5 in his best impression of a New York accent. Itʼs the weekday lunch rush in Midtown Manhattan, and the Florida rapper is cracking joke after joke as heʼs having his photos taken. “Not the glizzy stand! You canʼt be serious!” he quips after the photographer suggests a shot in front of a Sabrett hot dog cart on the corner.
Even in a sea of pedestrians and sensory overload, it’s hard for Denzel to blend in – beyond his signature wick hairstyle being a dead giveaway, his animated personality and confident stature draw curious onlookers. “The name’s Terrence Jenkins,” he deadpans, before cracking a mischievous grin for a starstruck fan. “Just kidding.” As we walk the next long stretch, Denzel tells me he overslept because he had a long night bowling with friends in the Lower East Side. “We had two lanes and the place was playing nothing but early 2000s music – that was funny as hell,” he says. “The energy was electric, the shots kept coming, and everybody’s adrenaline was up.”
Running on just a few hours of sleep on the last leg of his tour, somehow, he’s wide awake and still “on”, soundtracking our walk with more jokes, freestyles, and special sound effects. Denzel’s manager Mark, who he’s been working with for the past decade, lets out a subdued chuckle when I mention the 27-year-old rapper’s endurance. “Yep, that’s Denzel.”
Alter egos aside, there’s no place better than the birthplace of hip-hop to get to know Denzel Curry, a student of the city’s greats. “When you listen to New York rap in the South, people will always be like, ‘Oh, so you try to be a New Yorker or somethin’!” he says. Throughout the day, Denzel shows me some of his favourite source material on his phone: the famous Big L and Jay-Z ‘7-Minute Freestyle’ and ‘Watch Your Back’ by Big L featuring Cam’Ron and Bloodshed. The latter influenced the second verse of ‘Dark & Violent’ off Nostalgic 64, his first solo album. His latest, Melt My Eyez See Your Future, feels like a natural culmination for the rapper, who first turned heads with songs that nod to the aforementioned MCs, laced with Memphis bounce.
Like with all things he’s passionate about – Japanese culture, Muay Thai, and comic books among them – Denzel has a penchant for breaking things down: “I wanted people to understand the aesthetics of hip-hop that derive from jazz and bebop. Trip-hop, hip-hop, boombap, RnB, all somehow made their way onto the album,” Denzel says of Melt My Eyez – his most introspective, refined album yet – and its Deluxe B-Side of live music renditions. “I’m talking about everything that happens right in front of me, but I do it in a way that is very unconventional. I don’t want to be the traditional rapper – or, I guess, musician. ’Cause that’s how you push things forward.”
With Melt My Eyez being critically acclaimed as one of 2022’s best works, it’s still an understatement to call Denzel Curry’s current chapter his victory lap: as a pioneer of the South Florida scene that birthed SoundCloud rap, the RVIDXR KLVN alma mater’s legacy was cemented before he’d even got started. “It couldn’t have come at a better time – possibly the worst time of my life,” Denzel says of his musical beginnings and subsequent membership of the rap collective. “I was 16 and was just kicked out of art school. Me making my first tapes and creating the work, art and all that stuff was my ultimate revenge plan.”
After KLVN head SpaceGhostPurrp released Denzel’s ‘Creep Creep Devils 93,’ Mark saw tremendous potential in the young rapper, and connected with him via Facebook friend request. “I really needed a manager, and Mark stepped in for real,” Denzel says. “He had a whole plan mapped out, typing everything, a whole plan over Facebook, telling me what we were going to do from the beginning. I was just like, ‘Aight, let’s do this shit. Fuck it.’ We went through everything together, from getting pulled over with police at midnight in the Miami Shores and shit, to the gold beat-up Lexus we drove around giving out all types of stuff.”
What followed was a steady, calculated rise, a handful of aliases (Young Raven Miyagi, Denny Cascade, Aquarius’Killa, and Zeltron 6 Billion), four studio albums, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to critique Kanye West and Drake while thriving without the likes of them.
“Why would I limit my art?” Denzel posits when asked about the prospect of mainstream success. “I’ve put out tapes that are all vastly different from each other, and they don’t give a fuck. They start telling you, ‘This would go better if there was a Drake feature, or this would go better if this was a Future feature.’ Like, these motherfuckers don’t listen to me. Why would I pay for somebody that don’t even really fuck with my shit in the first place? I say fuck the punchlines, fuck that shit. It’ll be doper if I make it.” When I ask him to assess how things have gone since he linked up with Mark, I learn that if anything, Denzel is his own biggest critic. “I’m a very sensitive person. People are weird, people are rude, people are just assholes,” he says. “As someone who always focuses on the negative, I feel like I’m not being received, what’s the point of doing this anywhere when people are just going to hype up stupid shit? But there was a point where I told myself, ‘I’m not going to fail.’ You know what they say? ‘High risk, high reward.’ ‘The harder you work, the luckier you’re going to get.’”
Even by Denzel Curry’s high standards, the plan worked. “It’s kind of like being a fighter,” Denzel, who’s spent a good part of his life studying martial arts, explains when we settle in at Terminal 5. “Say you’re at fight camp and they tell you to focus on wrestling, wrestling, wrestling,” I nod along, as Denzel situates himself in his room backstage, eating dried mangos and catching up on text messages from his friends. “You win the fight, and you look back at all the footage of what you did before and now and add stuff to the toolbox. Now take that analogy and apply it to what I’ve done and am doing with music.”
Denzel Rae Don Curry was born and raised in Carol City, Florida – a place nicknamed ‘Murder Gardens’. By the time he was in middle school, he was challenging his peers to rap battles. After attending Miami’s Design and Architecture High School for two years, he was expelled. “I felt like I was a disappointment to my mother and father,” he remembers, noting his parents were separated by that point. “I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously as an artist because at that school if you are really good at art, they dickride the shit out of you, and if they don’t like you, they don’t like you.” Transferring to Miami Carol City Senior High School, he started working on his first mixtape, King Remembered Underground Tape 1991–1995, which gained the attention of RVIDXR KLVN founder SpaceGhostPurrp. “People who listen to my music will notice that the message got deeper because when I was in high school, I was dealing with Trayvon Martin being murdered, and things that was going down in my neighbourhood,” he tells me (they both attended the same school). “I was talking about things that were actually happening right there. Right in front of my face.”
Drawing elements from Memphis horrorcore, Miami bass, and West Coast gangsta rap, the darkness that the RVIDXR KLVN channeled was exactly what Denzel needed for his sound to develop and flourish. “Purrp taught me to channel my dark side,” Denzel told Passion of the Weiss in 2020. “Metro Zu taught me to channel universes.” Founded in 2011, shortly after the start of SoundCloud, the collective was Purrp’s vision for “his generation’s ongoing ’90s hip-hop revival from an underworld perspective”, complete with its own hieroglyphics and “a uniform of black clothes, gold teeth, and occult trappings.” The crew grew to include more members than one can count, all spread out across the country, united by the internet and a common goal to disrupt the underground. “When it came down to philosophical stuff, Purrp taught me to utilise my pain as much as possible,” Denzel says. His ability to process and harness intense energy is something that’s still felt in his music, even as Melt My Eyez takes a less aggressive approach than earlier releases. “Purrp sent me a beat and was like, ‘Release your pain. Release all that shit.’ I started releasing it.”
The KLVN dissolved a couple of years later, and Denzel, who’s since become its most successful member, was never interested in blending in with the rest: “I was one of the first people to join, but I wasn’t super reliant on Purrp and the KLVN like everybody else was,” he says. “I wanted to show that I could stand on my own too. Especially since I was kind of the underdog in that situation.” He attributes the successes since then in part to the consistency of his team, which beyond his manager Mark includes the likes of Lofty305 and Poshstronaut of Metro Zu, and his stylist Mariangel Robles. “I was very impressionable as a kid, and Mark and my team kept me away from the bullshit,” Denzel tells me. In addition to the KLVN’s dissolution and the beef that surrounded it, Denzel would grow up to experience even more loss, from his brother Treon Johnson, who was killed at the hands of Miami-Dade police in 2014, to his friend and collaborator XXXTentacion being murdered, both things that are still difficult for him to talk about. “With all these guys, it was just like, ‘Yo, come on, keep going, keep going, keep going.’”
I ask him about his recent statements on Twitter about reverting to his underground roots, including, “Major Labels can suck my dick”. “When I first started this, I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be the best, I want to be a threat,’ and eventually it turned into, ‘I want to be the best,’” Denzel retorts. As an artist who has three hits to his name independently, he’s mentioned his aversion to major labels stemming from a firm commitment to preserving the quality of his craft. He’s currently recording new music, testing the waters with new sounds while honing in on incorporating his roots. “There’s less creativity and freedom in the mainstream, I feel like the game is more rigged now,” Denzel says. “So if I know I’m playing a rigged game, what do I do? Get to a point where I’m super good at what I do. But now I think about where I’m going with it.”
I realise that it really is like being a fighter, and Denzel’s mastery of technique is only one part of the equation – he’s constantly sizing up his opponent and factoring in agility while he’s in the ring. “Now I’m resorting back to being a threat, it’s better, because I’m threatening people’s spots,” he explains to me, his eyes widening with intensity. “In order to be a threat, you have to threaten someone’s spot and you gotta work your way up. If you’re a constant threat, people are going to be intimidated by you. They’re going to try to sabotage you every step of the way. The best has always gotta worry about what a threat is going to do.”
A few hours later, we’re at the opening day of Comic Con at New York’s Javits Center, and Denzel’s leading us through a maze of booths, dropping some nerd trivia. “I’m not really looking for Marvel and DC stuff – Image and Dark Horse comics are where it’s at,” he says, shimmying past decorated cosplayers and an inflated Garfleld mascot. “Fun fact: the creator of Image is the reason why we have Venom!” He makes one purchase: a crochet Miles Morales Spider-Man beanie, which he gives to a fan later that evening because it doesn’t fit. “I’m not a celebrity,” says Denzel, who’s greeted dozens of fans by this point (many of them at Comic Con, naturally). “It’s weird ’cause they always say, ‘Never meet your idols’ and shit. I met a couple of mine, and trust me, that that statement is very true – except for André 3000. He’s the only exception to the rule, and he gave me the best advice of my life: Don’t get bored.”
After making a quick appearance at a Hypebeast event, he heads back to Terminal 5 – which is packed wall to wall – to take the stage with tourmates Kenny Mason, AG Club, Redveil, and PlayThatBoiZay. “I make music for myself, really,” Denzel told me earlier that afternoon. “And if you relate to it, then you’re part of my tribe.” I watch as he controls the crowd like a puppet master with strings: “Get lower! Get lower!” he belts out at one point, as he sprawls himself flat on the ground and directs the crowd to do the same. In the front, I can make out the three young teenagers that were camping out in front of the venue earlier that day – for them, too, a Denzel Curry show is like a therapy session, a sermon. Others agree. “Honestly, when I really listened to the rhyme in a real way I wanted to give him a hug,” collaborator Robert Glasper told SPIN in June, when asked about the harder topics Denzel’s latest album tackles: grief, death, sexual trauma. “It explains so much and I’m happy that he’s able to heal through his music and hopefully heal others through his music.”
After his performance, Denzel is backstage teeming with energy, rounding up as many people as he can to join him for a second night of bowling – until his plan is thwarted. Twenty of us are asked to squeeze into a small room in the back, where Denzel is presented with a surprise: champagne bottles, a cake with a ‘10’ candle, and a giant gold banner that reads ‘HAPPY ANNIVERSARY.’ It’s a tribute to Denzel and his team, after a decade of working together. Denzel is genuinely moved and can’t stop smiling as the glow of the candles gently bounces off his sunglasses. He blows them out, daps up everyone in the room, and does a little dance before heading out for the night ahead of him.
Denzel would return to his home in Los Angeles three days later to monumental stats that would make Melt My Eyez his first number one album. He says he misses home and the grounding it brings him: up by seven in the morning, he lets out his Husky, Ocean, makes coffee, and heads off to Muay Thai class, where he trains for an hour, sometimes two. “Fridays, oh man, you get to spar on Fridays,” he says of his martial arts practice, which teaches discipline, mindfulness, and controlled release. “I spar in the morning regardless of what’s happening in my life. It’s win or lose – who’s gonna get whooped? Possibly you, possibly me. We’re gonna see where our fight IQ is on Fridays.”
I ask him how the past two years of dealing with lockdowns through the pandemic have factored into him achieving this sense of peace. “It’s been a very introspective time period,” Denzel answers. “Seeing a lot of my shit on Front Street, you know what I’m saying? A lot of my flaws that I was neglecting, I couldn’t be distracted anymore. I finally was able to see it in front of me… And I know how to fight way better now.”
A version of this story appears in Huck 78. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Melt My Eyez is available on most major streaming platforms.
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