At just 24 years old, Denzel Curry already compressed what sounds like decades of experimentation, pain, and personality into four diverse albums. He was a fixture of the burgeoning Florida sound labeled “SoundCloud rap” — the same one that helped make careers for the late XXXTentacion (who Curry called his “brother”), Kodak Black, Lil Pump, and more — at the outset of his career before he released “Ultimate” in 2015, earning him a slice of the viral-fame pie. After becoming a member of XXL’s Freshman Class of 2016 alongside names like Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage, he cemented himself as an important face of not just rising Florida rap, but of his generation as well.
Since then, Curry has put out an EP and two full-length albums. The journey here hasn’t been easy, filled with the kinds of twists and turns that would derail anyone without their eyes affixed to the street. But Curry has held on. His latest album, ZUU, shows self-actualized growth, revealing a confident and bold rapper and singer. Here’s how he got there.
“5A.M. In Opa-Locka!!!!!!!”
In 2011, Curry was a 16-year-old rapper still wet behind the ears. He grew up in Miami Gardens's Carol City neighborhood in a maelstrom of violence. He turned to rap early to express himself and aligned with SpaceGhostPurrp, one of the genre’s most unpredictable forces during the early 2010s. He assumed the name Aquarius’Killa and began working on his first project, which SpaceGhostPurrp posted on SoundCloud later that year.
Curry was officially a member of Raider Klan, the Florida group known for making horrific music that the Grim Reaper would clean his house to. Curry submerged himself in this style, particularly on “5 Am In Opa-Locka!!!!!!!” — named for a particularly violent city in Miami-Dade County. Amid the distorted boom of drums, Curry cuts rapid and rough flows about money and murder. But soon, he’d evolve.
By 2013, Curry had weathered multiple storms. He’d shed the Aquarius’Killa moniker and started to go by his birth name. His second mixtape, King of the Mischievous South Vol. 1. Underground Tape 1996, grew his presence and was recognized by Odd Future. In 2012, after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin (who went to Curry's high school), Curry and his classmates made a powerful statement against police brutality. "Everybody came to school with hoodies on and we were all marching," he told Crack Magazine in 2017. (Martin was a Raider Klan fan, Curry said last year.) Curry kept Martin in mind when he released his third mixtape, Strictly 4 My R.V.I.D.X.R.Z.
But soon after this mixtape dropped, the group dissolved. Around this time, he finished up his first studio album, Nostalgia. The album received acclaim from critics who praised the rapper’s ongoing improvement. “Denny Cascade” is proof of his growth, as he tells a warm and groovy story about a day in the life of Curry in Miami. He raps a tad rough, but it’s much calmer and more blended than his style with Raider Klan, which bordered on goth.
When Curry’s brother, Treon Johnson, died after being tased by police in 2014, it sent Curry to a dark place. To cope, Curry turned to rap again to express himself. He went to work on the 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms double EP. He put out “Ultimate” as a teaser in 2015 and it took over the Internet the next day as a taste of rage that many could identify with. It went on to peak at No. 23 on the U.S. Rap Digital chart and was certified gold by the RIAA.
“Ultimate” is what changed things for Curry. He revealed to Vice that he was able to find himself through it and figure out what works for him creatively. Listening to it, you can hear the flattening of what worked for him over the course of his career. The early Raider Klan-esque, distorted and snarling rap has been tempered. It would become the Curry song to beat, establishing him as a force in rap and would lead to him becoming a member of XXL’s Freshman Class of 2016.
Curry’s second album, Imperial, came out in 2016 and boasted features from Rick Ross and Joey Badass — marks of an artist with growing industry ties. The LP’s complex haze of warbling sounds in a spacey aesthetic followed the trek of the rapper spinning constantly to find his own groove. In 2017, he released an EP, 13. He was confident in his rising creative acumen and wanted fans to know; he told XXL that he was really preparing for Ta13oo, his third studio album, and that 13 were demos to share because he was bored.
He released his third album, Ta13oo, in 2018 and it included "Clout Cobain," an important piece of the LP's grand story and one of the rapper's most personal songs. The song references Kurt Cobain and examines fame in the age of quick rises and falls. The accompanying video showcased him as a clown controlled by puppet strings, a metaphor for the music industry and the suits controlling it.
Curry let Ta13oo simmer for just shy of 11 months before returning to the fray with ZUU, his fourth studio album. If what he revealed to Fader is true — that the entire LP was freestyled — then first single “Ricky” is the work of a mastermind. It’s named after his father, to whom it pays tribute and is reflected in the cover art.
In the song, Carol City isn’t hellishly depicted like Opa-Locka. Instead, it’s the setting where his guardians instill their life lessons in him. Curry’s dad tells him, “Trust no man but your brothers.” His mother says, “Trust no ho, use a rubber.” Throughout the tune, we leave his childhood cul-de-sac and find power in his past. After all, the tribulations he's faced throughout his life have certainly strengthened his position in the rap space, as well as his comfort within himself.
Curry’s career continues to push further inward as he becomes more comfortable and familiar with personal experimentation. He continues to show that his next move will always be more calculated than his last — something that likely puts continued mainstream success in his sights.