Like the state he hails from, Denzel Curry has always been a bizarre amalgamation of influences and representations. Florida is the state of alligators and Mickey Mouse. Curry’s a fan of Trina and Pantera. Florida is home to ecentric weirdos and professional sports stars. Curry loves anime and The U. Florida is the most unpredictable state in the union, and Curry is rap’s wildcard. They’re a perfect match.

 

That’s what makes “ZUU,” Curry’s most recent LP, so riveting — it’s a love letter to his hometown of Carol City, FL. This familiar setting allows him to be much more comfortable as a storyteller. On previous records, Curry only made allusions to the poverty and resilience of his childhood. His first song that got real traction, “Parents,” briefly notes of his economic surroundings. “Then you realize that life is a bitch, got no education, so you got to be the chick, that strip for a living ’cause you gotta pay the rent,” he raps as ominous synths click in the background.

 

Following his breakout hit, “Ultimate,” Curry leaned more into precise, helicopter rhythms to set himself apart from his contemporaries. He came out of the same Miami metro scene as XXXtentacion, Lil Pump, and Kodak Black. Out of this posse, he was always clearly the most talented MC. However, the 24-year-old’s style always felt uncertain. One minute he’d be spitting venom over the sinister, Memphis-inspired production of Ronnie J. Next he’d be embracing the industrial noise on tracks like “Hate Government.” His 2018 record, “Ta13oo,” couldn’t decide if it was emo-rap or experimental rock.

 

The talent was never in question, but the way he translated his vision to the studio was always muddled by a million aspirations.

 

“ZUU” is the synthesis of Curry’s most prominent features. There’s references to Dragon Ball Z and Three Six Mafia. He employs electronic glitches with classic hip-hop percussion. There are ‘80s Miami pop hymns mix with autotuned choruses. Curry has always been about a coalition of sounds, but the difference between “ZUU” and his previous efforts is that he’s grounded his subjects. The intentions are very clear: he’s trying to give us a clear window of life in South Florida.

 

Take “CAROLMART” for example. Its cocky chorus switches between pitched-up samples that invoke early DJ Paul, and utilizes the same vocal distortions that defined XXXtentacion’s most notable tracks. On the track, Curry articulates the violence and struggle of day-to-day life in Carol City. Yet, notice how he embraces his roots without basking in its disruptive nature: “A real-ass nigga from the 305, I was raised off of Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies, (but) when it comes to that green shit, I am anti.” Curry has always been open about how old school hip-hop and drug addiction defined his upbringing. He described in a recent interview that people are always off put by his sobriety. “ZUU” offers these moments of clarity that sets it apart from his previous albums — as well as the content of his contemporaries.

 

Despite how he rides genre like a seesaw, Curry is still committed to the current pop sensibilities of radio-friendly hip-hop. Lead single “RICKY” indulges in some A$AP Rocky–inspired choruses and bounce-pass rhythms. “SPEEDBOAT” sounds like a grimey, bruised Drake song, except the lyrical content deals with losing a sibling to gun violence rather than the dramas of Instagram. While Curry does indulge in typical rap subjects like guns, crime and sex; he still finds ways to frame it with gritty realism and brilliant wordplay. “Pray I keep it all at the Sunday service, my pastor making dollars like he Erick Sermon,” he raps on the Rick Ross–featured “BIRDZ.”

 

The progression of Curry’s output is promising. He’s still relatively new to the game, but already has a plethora of quality releases under his belt. “ZUU” is so thorough and verbose, but it doesn’t feel like his peak. Rather, it’s an album that shows a newly established MC flexing his cinematic chops. Even better, Curry’s rich lyrical textures are never meant to necessarily meant to be a complete downer. The tracks on “ZUU” are incredibly entertaining but also engage in playful experimentation. He’s still very much immersed in counterculture and shows no sign of completely integrating into rap’s elite, often commodified echelons. Denzel Curry likes being the underdog.  

 

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