Denzel Curry: “The greatest rapper alive? Who’s going to tell me I’m not?”

Having ushered in a brash new scene before boldly reinventing his sound, Denzel Curry is in a creative purple patch. Now he has his sights on legacy

If you have any preconceived notions about Florida rapper Denzel Curry, leave them at the door. He might be known for hyper-aggressive, high-octane rap music, but in person the 27-year-old cuts a much more chilled-out figure. Arriving early for his chat with NME in an east London studio ahead of a lecture he’s due to give at the University of Oxford, he rocks a simple T-shirt and jeans combo – even if the bright, glaring patterns speak almost as loudly as he does throughout our hour-long interview.

Relaxing on a worn-down sofa, joined by his manager and personal photographer, he’s in the mood to reflect on his noted versatility, which is perhaps defined by his fifth album ‘Melt My Eyez See Your Future’. NME described the melodic record, released in March, as his “​​most experimental work since his 2018 breakthrough double album ‘TA13OO’”. Today he explains: “I wanted to make sure everything I do is different so it builds versatility. .. Versatility is key. I always say to myself, ‘Flexibility is key! Flexibility is key!’ ‘Cause if you just stay strong and get based at what you’re doing… a rock can crush another rock, but a rock can’t crush a rubber band, so you’ve got to remain flexible.”

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

And this flexibility shows throughout his 12-year discography to date. Looking back at Curry’s earlier records, you’ll find spacey trip-hop beats (on EPs such as 2015’s ‘32 Zel/Planet Shrooms’) combined with distorted vocals and 808s, which gave him an edge like no-one else. His lyrics, though, have often coursed with aggression. Looking at ‘Envy Me’, a single from that aforementioned EP: “I’ma keep balling to the end n****a /21 guns for my enemies”.

He’s developed this over the years: 2016 album ‘Imperial’ was packed with distorted, shouted vocals while 2018’s ‘TA13OO’, saw him combine those trip-hop sounds with angst-ridden emo-rap. While he explored his aggressive and gruff vocal delivery further on 2019’s ‘ZUU’, it was with ‘Melt My Eyez, See Your Future’ that Curry began to plummet his other deepest emotions beyond anger.

“I want to make sure everything I do is different so it builds versatility”

Such a varied discography means fans often want to hear the ‘old’ Denzel: “I’m always entering some sort of era where people are like, ‘I miss when you used to make turn up music’, ‘I miss when you did this, or when you sung…’. He adds: “That’s why ‘Melt My Eyez…’ has so many singy hooks – I wanted people to sing with me.” Curry is even considering an “R&B album [because] I’m done with throwing my voice out for people”.

Curry explains that he’s a “sensitive ass n****a” – hence the smooth sounds of ‘Melt My Eyez…’ – but those more aggressive earlier releases betray a past that meant anger was his preferred means of communication. From the age of 12, he says, life in Florida’s Carol City became “progressively dangerous” for him: “I grew up in a house full of brothers who liked to fight. I grew up watching my brothers backyard fighting, doing martial arts. My friends were fighting, and watching UFC, and all these things. [I was] getting into fights myself… It’s not me thriving in chaos, but me thriving off life. Before, I was thriving off chaos. If my life wasn’t chaotic then I [wouldn’t be] making music.”

Denzel Curry on the cover of NME
Denzel Curry on the cover of NME

Yet, he insists, “I really have a range of emotions because I’m sensitive.” It’s this range of emotions that makes ‘Melt My Eyez…’ such a compelling work: see the soulful and subdued ‘Mental’, on which Curry’s addresses his battle with mental health and the overcoming of suicidal thoughts.

At other times in his career, Denzel Curry has channelled his anger into rock music: in 2019 he covered Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls On Parade’ for the YouTube series Like A Version. It was, he admits, a bold move because “people know not to touch a Rage Against The Machine song”. He’s proud, though, of the positive reception to his risky move: “There are people who were super big rock-heads who said, ‘When I heard a rapper was going to cover this, I was very sceptical until I heard it. And you bodied it’.

“Nobody’s ever bodied a Rage Against The Machine cover… I got a lot of praise for it and some people are even asking me to make a punk album, and I’m just not with that. Not now; hell no! A punk album? Fuck no!”

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

When NME posits that Denzel Curry could become a big punk crossover superstar – suggesting he could be a pop-punk prince, if you like – he recoils: “If anything I’m more so big on flexibility, because when you call me a ‘pop-punk prince’, that’s like you’re putting me in a box – that’s not what I want you to do. I make sure every album sounds different. On this album, do you hear it sound like punk? You might hear it on ‘TA13OO’, maybe even on ‘Imperial’ – but [2013’s bassy, grainy] ‘Nostalgic 64’ didn’t sound like punk. You can’t call me that: I did one cover and now everyone thinks I’m punk!”

He happily will accept the title if you equate being punk to being a rebel, ”but the majority of my music is just music, man. I just want people to enjoy it.”

If you look back at rock’s long history, of course, you’ll see that the genre was started by underrepresented Black people long before the ‘50s rock’n’roll revolution. For decades, though, rock has been a work dominated by mostly angry white men. There’s currently a resurgence of Black stars such as Nova Twins and WILLOW reclaiming the sound – has Denzel been pleased to see that?

“Nobody’s ever bodied a Rage Against The Machine cover before me”

“Bro, we made that shit!” he exclaims. “Someone was like to me, ‘Why do you make that white boy music?’ I was like, ‘White boy music!?’. Don’t people understand that rock’n’roll was made by a Black man?” (He’s referring to guitar genius Chuck Berry, before his photographer, Luke, corrects him, pulling out an article about ‘40s pop-gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe). Satisfied, the rapper continues: “It is what it is. People are being more open-minded, and not to be racially stimulated, but I’m telling you the truth: rock was obviously taken over like how everything is: dubstep, ska, and all that stuff. And rap is currently in a battle for that.”

There was once a time you couldn’t be Black and listen to rock music without scrutiny, and Denzel relishes the opportunity to geek out over one of his childhood favourite bands: “I loved Pantera. Pantera was my shit! ‘Super Cowboys From Hell’; ‘Reinventing the Steel’ – their [songs and albums] had some cool ass names as well. That one album, [1992’s] ‘Vulgar Display of Power’? Super-tight.” In a display of range that Curry would be proud of, the Texan rockers even appeared in a certain underwater cartoon in 2001: “And they did some shit for Spongebob, which is like, ‘Wow!”.

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

Curry is similarly ebullient at Oxford Union the day after our interview. He enters the richly historical building whose garnet-colourd walls and sable floors could tell more than a century’s-worth of stories. He’s a part of a list of seminal Black celebrities such as Will Smith, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Joshua who have given talks on their career journeys. The 27-year-old looks awfully comfortable setting where they sat, given the enormity of his achievement: he’s one of the youngest rappers to talk inside the prestigious Union, joining an elite group of young go-getters recognised by the prestigious Oxford University: Dizzee Rascal (who spoke at 21), Stormzy (22), and A$AP Rocky (26).

The students bundle in, hanging on his every word he debates Star Wars versus Star Trek (coming out on the side of the former because “Star Trek is a bunch of people sitting down”) and jokes that he was “going to watch the new Doctor Strange, but I had to come do this shit instead”.

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

Things take a more serious turn when one student asks him about the epidemic of deaths in young rappers. Notoriously, Denzel’s friend and Floridian peer XXXTentacion died when he was shot at a motorcycle shop in June 2018, part of a long line of artists in his field who passed at appallingly young ages, including Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD. It’s a crippling problem for rap’s new talent pool but Denzel tells the audience: “It’s the lifestyle that comes with it. It’s hard for them to leave that environment because that’s all they know. Money doesn’t change people; it just amplifies what they are. Majority of the time, people are pushing this narrative [of being tough]. It’s not the artist; it’s really the industry that’s pushing it.”

Curry is, clearly, an authority on his scene. He’s also a trailblazer. With ‘Nostalgic 64’ and ‘Imperial’, he pioneered the distorted, blown-out beats that defined Floridian rap in the ‘10s, making way for the likes of Lil Pump, Ski Mask the Slump God and the late XXXTentacion to thrive. He insists to NME at the London studio before the talk at Oxford Union: “I wasn’t just a part of it; I was one of the pioneers of it. It’s not even me being a part of that movement: I helped push that movement, because I was co-signing people like X and Ski when they were coming up”.

“Don’t people understand that rock’n’roll was made by a Black man?”

Does that make him the greatest rapper alive, as he told XXL back in May? “I am!” he replies. “I don’t give a fuck!” Predictably, Twitter came after him for making such a provocative statement: “I was so mad but, at the same time, very sensitive. I was like, ‘I am and who the fuck’s going to tell me I’m not?”

One thing’s for sure: Florida currently needs its credit for changing the modern landscape of rap music. “Everybody copies us now,” Curry agrees. “I remember talking to Key Glock yesterday [about how] the game is copying the stuff from down South because we basically gave the whole aesthetic of what’s going on right now. It all stems back to early 2011, 2010-type stuff when everyone was coming out.

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

“Florida has such a big thing where we had people like me, Kodak [Black], X, and Ski and newer — even the Jacksonville guys like Yungen Ace and Julio Foolio. The game is looking at [us].” He even gives Lil Pump some credit for his influence on modern trap music and its catchy hooks, although he’s not the rapper’s biggest fan: “It’s just a whole lot of things happening where even [he] has some influence. As much as people don’t like to admit it, but his songs you did listen to. I used to listen to ‘Boss’, ‘Gucci Gang’ and shit. Well, ‘Gucci Gang’ is annoying, but ‘Boss’ and ‘D Rose’: people were bumping those.”

Having dominated rap, Denzel Curry now also has his sights on film and TV. “I really want to get into acting, he explains. “I’m sceptical because there’s already a Denzel [Washington] and a Denzel the rapper, but I’ll probably be like D. Curry. I’m really into films and directing… With my albums, I’m directing movies by telling you stories about what’s happening in my life. I want to tell a story about growth, my personal growth.”

Denzel Curry
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

He spent his childhood glued to Toonami, a series of largely Japanese animations aired on Cartoon Network, which exposed him to exquisite art styles and narratives from shows such as Dragonball Z and The Big O. In fact, he’s even working on his own four-volume anime comic, Hell Trials, which he began work on in the pandemic. “[Japanese art] became a part of me,” he says. “Just like drawing has always been a part of me. Fighting is a part of me, the same way rapping is a part of me. Anime is just another art form.”

Curry lights up when NME presses him on Hell Trials, pulling his phone out spiritedly to show us his illustrations of gods and goddesses. They’re slumped and dirty; the six characters look like a crew of post-apocalyptic bandits with their weapons hanging off of them. “There’s six gods and goddesses,” he enthuses, “and they’re fighting in this death match. Basically, we’re stuck in the coldest parts of Hell. It’s more like [2007 movie] The Condemned where they throw all these convicts on an island to kill each other. It’s like that but set in the coldest parts of Hell.” True to form, it’s a mash-up of various genres, including chanbara – a Japanese equivalent to a swashbuckler – to “spaghetti western.” He adds with a grin: “And – when the gods interact with each other – it’s comedy.”

“I’d love to spawn different comics… I’ll hopefully be a gazillionaire off it”

For Denzel, it’s all a way of communing with his inner child: “People are like, ‘You like anime? You like dweeb shit!’ And it’s because people want to be grown so fast that they forget that they once were kids at one time, and forget that they have a fucking imagination, and they just settle on boring shit. I like to go to amusement parks! You like to go to the club? Fuck a club: what am I going to do in there? I want to get on this ride and possibly have a heart attack, get some cotton candy, and go about my days knowing that I enjoyed my life.”

A life well-lived, to Denzel Curry, would mean knowing he “never put out a bad album”– but he also wants to leave a wider legacy: ”When it comes down to the other shit, like my comic, I don’t want to just make a comic. I want that to become a show, and I want that show to push the toys, then the toys could push a phenomenon. And that phenomenon can be like what Disney has – theme parks and rides. There’s a whole aesthetic to it.”

In this, his ambition is limitless: the 27-year-old longs to secure a legacy that could see him compared to Stan Lee, the late Marvel magnate, writer, producer and icon: “I’d love to spawn different comics that spawn different types of phenomenons and there’ll be different characters that you can resonate with because it all started with Hell Trails. I’ll hopefully be a million-billion-gazillionaire off it. I want to do what I do and push it further than what [My Chemical Romance frontman] Gerard Way did with [his comic] The Umbrella Academy… I want to do what Stan Lee did but on a higher scale.”

And that’s Denzel Curry: the wildly ambitious rap pioneer who ushered in a rambunctious new scene, distanced himself from it with the impeccably melodic ‘Melt My Eyez See Your Future’ and now has his sights set on sitting atop a whole different world. He’s talking about comic books when he lands his killer blow, but in doing so sums up his entire modus operandi: “I want to do it better than anyone else.”

– ‘Melt My Eyez See Your Future’ is out now digitally via Loma Vista and will be released physically on September 30. Denzel Curry plays Reading and Leeds Festival from August 26

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