It’s a sunny Friday afternoon at the Global building, just off Leicester Square. Summer is in full effect, taking all of London in a warm, welcome embrace, and while the sun eases into its decent Denzel Curry sits comfortably, phone in hand, dreads tied into ram-like protrusions on either side of his head; immediately identifiable. In the UK doing press ahead of his new album TA13OO (read Taboo), due later this month, Curry is one the most distinct-looking rappers in a generation of them, standing out from the swarms of hair dyed and face tattooed MCs by sheer force of character.
Mind you, he’s managed this without having gone to obscene lengths to differentiate himself; even – rare as it seems – going by his birth name. His individuality comes from other places. Like, say, his stance on drugs & sobriety, his punky-dancehall musical blend and his overall infectious enthusiasm; subversive when paralleled against his somewhat darker sound. Curry seems to bleed an uncommon charm; alternative in a way that’s welcoming fun-loving.
Before our interview even begins, I’ve apologised to Curry, twice. First, for our weird run-in, at reception, whereby I stared for a moment stunned at our ‘meeting’ at the front desk — “It wasn’t really that weird; I was like ‘well ite, the nigga know who I am, so I’m guessing he’s with us…’” he says graciously ignoring my temporary paralysis. Then again, for asking what I felt would be dreadfully worn out question. “Where I’m from?” he asks, exasperated, to which I give a shocked but firm “No”, laughter rocking the room. “Hey…” he sighs, relieved. “Where I’m from, that’s usually it. “How you started off…” I begin to ask, he laughs in good humour. “Come on…”
Curry fans know he’s a South Florida native. Carol city specifically. Home to a bubbling slew of rappers rocking the boat at the moment. Artists who’ve lazily – some might even say disrespectfully – been dubbed ‘SoundCloud Rappers.’ People like Ski Mask The Slump God, Wifi’sFuneral, Kodak Black, and the recently deceased XXXTentacion. However, seeing how many of them have turned their bedroom hobbies into certifiable, lucrative careers, the term now seems reductive at best and demeaning at the worst.
To his obvious distaste, Denzel too had been lumped with the label, so he makes his position clear on the topic: he’d prefer he wasn’t pigeonholed. “I call my music, music,” he says sternly. “I don’t like when people try to put a title on that shit: my music, is music. Like, “ooh, he’s a soundclo- nope! “He’s a me- nope! It’s music bruh; just deal with it.” His usually excitable temperament turns frustrated. Fast. Perhaps it baffles him, listeners needing the world packed in such neatly defined boxes? But, unfortunately, consumers need categories and because hip hop’s become such a large, thriving ecosystem, it’s tough to navigate without the necessary sub-genres.
In fact, recent years have seen hip hop swell in size, officially overtaking rock as the US’ most popular genre, and many other nations’ beside. Perhaps we’ve postmodernism to thank for that, as it’s become less the ‘boom-bap’, traditionalist art form of its origin, but more of a stylish nucleus — a living, expanding entity informed by the many cultures it’s intermingled with since spreading beyond US borders. So for an artist like Curry – who’s music is simply what his predecessors might’ve made if they’d had more exposure and fewer rules; it’s easy to see how these titles may seem redundant.
It’s clear that Curry feels his music defies categorisation. “My music is damn near genreless” he states “I just took every genre and put it in my music. So it’s genreless.” This is a common claim among Curry’s generations of artists, and while he certainly combines more influences than most, his music is still rooted in hip hop enough to be classed as it. Rapping over a beat, over production of any kind in fact, is rarely mistaken for anything else. Nor could anyone in their right mind mistake what Denzel does for, say, country.
Given he’s confessed a taste for additional genre’s like jazz & anime OST’s like that of Cowboy Bebop and the like, it’s no wonder his music makes for such a genre-blending mix. Throughout our conversation Curry relates things excitedly, emanating ‘new blood’ energy all the while. And why shouldn’t he? Things appear much brighter for the young rapper than they had only a few short months prior.
Curry went through a ‘rough patch’ earlier this year; rough enough, in fact, to impede his progress, forcing him to put everything on ‘pause’ for a short while. “It was definitely a mental health break. I NEEDED that mental health break.” Says Curry. “’Cos everybody was pressuring me, and I felt like people were sleeping on what I was talking ‘bout; like I wasn’t gon’ make it as much…” Sadly this sentiment is a lot more common than we’d all care to admit and while the stigma around mental health has faded somewhat, it hasn’t diminished altogether. Nor have the music business’ demands lessened much since both mental health & substance abuse began dominating the narrative.
With so much pressure on young artists to perform, constantly compared to their peers, expected to become multi-million earning stars overnight, things appear to be spiralling out of control. Some artists use music as their vice, a pressure release valve of sorts, while some use vices to fuel their music. Midway between it all, we have Denzel Curry, preaching balance and wellbeing: “Now lemme clear this up. I’m not against nobody!” he clarifies “I’m not against drug use; I’m not against people who do drugs. If you do drugs? That’s you. Even if you’re an artist — if you do drugs? That’s you! But when the whole culture is saturated, with everybody talking about doing drugs and stuff, getting these kids thinking that’s the cool shit to go to, fucking up their lives? That’s when I gotta step in and be like ‘bruh, come on.’ You gotta be more responsible man.”
So much how much onus is on rappers to be better role models or to think more responsibly about their output? Well, that’s for the artist themselves to decide, just as Denzel’s done. However, it’d be dangerous to dismiss so many rappers as merely ‘irresponsible’ for their choosing to ‘self-medicate’. Substance abuse tends to begin as recreation but becomes a problem when people use it as a means to escape pain. So if drug abuse is so rampant among a generation of artists and beyond, clearly there’s some underlying cause, one that’s affecting a generation of rappers and their fans.
As we flit between all these topics the energy in the room builds, tilts, then descends. Denzel fidgets somewhat in his seat. As though sensing the end, he edges into a transient calm. Curious as to what other influences make his music so ‘genre-less’, I query his tastes beyond Hip Hop.“I like Sade… Actually, I like quiet storm, drum & bass. Of course, I like rock — that’s very prominent in my music…I like jazz – the Cowboy Bebop OST – original soundtracks. There’s something about neo-soul that I really like… I love neo-soul.” So far it seems just as eclectic as expected; though he can’t help but bring it home.”Even Kanye”s early shit… I don’t fuck with what he do, but he makes good music.”
We both erupt into laughter at that.
Denzel Curry’s new album TA13OO will be released in three acts between July 25th- 27th.