Having spent a decade carving out a unique space for himself in the experimental underground of American hip hop, the Florida rapper is ready to break through to megastardom
On the evening of 2 September 2018, Denzel Curry scribbled down six words in his notepad: Melt My Eyez, See Your Future.
He didn’t exactly know what it meant, but the ring was pleasing. He had his sights fixed on creating his most towering record yet, an album etched across his largest canvas to date, and he felt that this would be a title grand enough to convey that magnitude, in the tradition of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As it would transpire, Curry would make two more records between that day and the eventual release of the album he envisaged. Indeed, it was only upon completion of 2019’s Zuu that he returned to that page of his notepad and started to truly understand the meaning of those words he had so chaotically thrown down.
“It made sense more than it did before,” Curry says. “‘Melt My Eyez’ is a metaphor for things we choose not to see on a daily basis: we avoid people, we avoid the news, we avoid criticism, but most importantly, we avoid facing the truth ourselves when it’s right in front of us. ‘See Your Future’ comes from self-reflection and the realisation that I’m going to do something to better the world by letting them know that we are all the same and we can move forward in life if we don’t focus on the past.”
Melt My Eyes, See Your Future, coming this spring, is the record he’s been imagining all that time; most definitely Denzel Curry’s grandest statement, it’s a culmination of his decade at the spearhead of an underground rap movement that he has so often helped to define and evolve. It finds the Florida native breaking down the barriers he had previously used to protect himself, choosing now to speak honestly and candidly about his real life.
“Usually, when you hear my records, they are loud and aggressive,” he says. “Maybe a little out there and a little weird, and I would always hide behind a personality. This time, you don’t get a personality, you don’t get a Zeltron or a Raven Miyagi or Aquarius’killa. Ultimately, this album is about me, Denzel Curry. No alter egos, no nothing. Just Denzel Curry.”
Curry first started releasing his own music in 2011, quickly catching the attention of fellow Miami rapper SpaceGhostPurrp, who welcomed him into the Raider Klan group. Earl Sweatshirt was an early admirer of Curry’s mixtapes, and when Curry chose to separate from the pack and go it alone, he soon found his contemporaries lining up wanting to work with him.
Debut album Nostalgic 64 was met with critical acclaim in 2014, but it wasn’t until his taut, punk-inspired juggernaut of a track ‘Ultimate’ caught fire in summer of 2016 that Curry began breaking through to the next level. It coincided with the release of hip hop magazine XXL’s highly influential ‘Freshman Class’ cover that year, which saw Curry presented as a face of the new generation of rappers alongside the likes of 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black and Anderson .Paak. Subsequent releases and collaborations with producer Kenny Beats have elevated Curry to the position he finds himself in today, as one of the most respected and eagerly anticipated voices in rap culture.
He built his reputation upon a confrontational, aggressive vocal style, typified on tracks like ‘Take_it_Back_v2’ and ‘Ricky’, but in truth he is a shapeshifter by nature, with that rare ability and emotional intelligence to apply himself to whatever tone, genre or energy a track requires. That talent flourishes on Melt My Eyez, switching from melodic sensitivity to political fury and a hundred shades in between at will.
“I realised I wanted to make the music I wanted to make,” he says, reflecting on the stylistic range of the album. “It didn’t matter what the beats sounded like, as long as people feel it and they fuck with it. I didn’t choose the beats because they’d be perfect to rap on, the beats were setting the mood. The beat would bring the emotion out of me. Once you feel it, you know.”
It was a chance meeting with a future pop superstar that first instigated the musical shift in emphasis on Melt My Eyez. A fifteen-year-old Billie Eilish reached out to Curry, her favourite rapper, asking to come to one of his shows, and the pair struck up a friendship that would lead to her appearance as an uncredited vocalist on his track ‘Sirens’, from 2018’s Ta13oo, and her inviting him to be her opening act on her stadium world tour later the same year.
“It made me want to do bigger shows,” says Curry, “and I knew I couldn’t get that way by yelling. I knew I had to have bigger songs, something that people could enjoy. I wanted people to sing my songs this time. Yeah, they can mosh all day, but that’s venue stuff. I want stadiums.”
Hearing those words, you could be forgiven for expecting a mainstream-ised version of Curry on the new record, with the edges sawn off, but the reality is far from it. There is a sense of musical adventure to Melt My Eyez, an all-styles-welcome open-mindedness that meets Curry’s newfound willingness to share his innermost truths; this is a project emblazoned with ambition at every turn.
“I had to ask myself some questions before I even got to actually making things,” he says. “How do I take this a step further and really make it radical? How will I make it different to my predecessors? What makes this different to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? What makes it better than Nostalgic 64, Ta13oo or Zuu? Will this create a blueprint and legacy to follow?”
On that same momentous notepad, Curry wrote a list of styles that he wanted to incorporate onto the album: acid jazz, trip-hop, R&B, jazz, boom bap, drum and bass, jungle, funk, neo-soul, dancehall, punk and synthpop all made that initial list, and it is not a stretch to say that traces of all of them are evident in the final product. The eclecticism is thanks in large part to the parade of elite producers that Curry now has at his disposal, from Boi-1da and Powers Pleasant to Dot da Genius and his old Miami friends FnZ (aka Finatik N Zac).
Thundercat became a close confidante during the recording process, producing the track ‘Smell of Death’ and serving as a sort of personal counsel for Curry. “He’s a pretty out-there guy,” says Curry. “He made me feel more comfortable in being myself than anyone I’ve ever met. He made me feel that I could do anything if I just be myself, he made it comfortable for me to like the stuff I like.” The jazz influences continued with a last-minute appearance from the formidable Houston composer and arranger Robert Glasper, who produced album opener ‘Melt’ and played keys on ‘Ain’t No Way’. “We were almost wrapped when he came in,” remembers Curry. “He’s that guy who you pass him the ball for the last shot and he makes it.”
Also adding their idiosyncrasies to the Melt My Eyez melting pot were his old friend, the freewheeling Kenny Beats, and JPEGMAFIA, one of the few collaborators that Curry was able to maintain close contact with during the pandemic, and who he describes as being “the most different out of all of them”.
“I take pride in learning from other artists, and I understand that flexibility is key,” says Curry. The result is an album with a sound palette that stretches the horizons and accentuates the importance of the subject matter.
Curry has included references to his own mental health struggles in his music in the past on occasion, including on ‘Clout Cobain’ from Ta13oo, but from the opening moments of Melt My Eyez opener ‘Melt’, Curry mentions having dealt with suicidal thoughts, a subject he later returns to on the track ‘Mental’.
“I was having suicidal thoughts, and I just didn’t want to live,” he says, referring to the period between his breakthrough in 2016 and the start of making this album in 2019. “My girl is actually the reason I got into therapy. I didn’t realise there is a lot of underlying trauma that I was dealing with, stuff with my previous life, childhood trauma. I didn’t know that was affecting me as an adult.”
Curry now believes that however uncomfortable it may be for him to talk publicly about it, there is genuine value to him sharing his experiences. “I felt like people needed to know who I was, and who I’m currently becoming. There could be someone else in this situation and when they hear me speak about my flaws – I’m not speaking about being perfect, because I know I’m not perfect – it can possibly help somebody else. That’s why it’s good to express yourself and that’s all I’m doing, I’m expressing myself to the best of my abilities. All journeys are non-linear, we all have ups and downs, and how we overcome them is the real, true good about life.”
He is quick to stress that his two-and-a-half years of therapy have helped him to gain perspective on his life, his work and his relationships, and with that newfound stability, he now has the strength to show this part of himself to the outside world.
When he is not turning the spotlight upon himself, then he has plenty to say about the outside world, too. A trio of tracks on the first half of the album tackle a tranche of institutional political problems facing the US, from the state-of-the-nation address of ‘Worst Come to Worst’ to the direct response to the George Floyd riots on ‘The Last’, a track inspired by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The latter track funnels its commentary on racial inequality into a specific attack on the music industry in its second verse.
“The music industry is a bit colourist,” he explains. “A lot of the most seen, talented singers and rappers are light-skinned. I see a lot of light-skinned women, like Saweetie, Doja Cat, Cardi B, just to name a few names. I’ve never seen a dark-skinned chick that blew up to that magnitude like them. Not to discredit them, I’m just calling it as I see it. I feel like the fame is a little bit colorist, if you think about it.”
The third in the trio is ‘John Wayne’, a track about police brutality. “It is on a scale to the point where I feel like I need to get a gun to protect myself from the people that are supposed to protect me,” he says. Tragically, it is a subject that Curry speaks about with personal experience. His brother Treon died as a result of complications after being tasered by police in 2014; furthermore, back in Carol City, Florida, Curry was a classmate of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, causing nationwide protests and marches.
‘John Wayne’ is not Curry’s first excursion into these waters; during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, Curry and producer Terrace Martin released the searing, blistering ‘Pig Feet’, a track so devastatingly timely in its anger that it is incredible to consider that the track had been finished two years earlier. “It’s crazy, it’s like we kind of predicted the future,” he says, half-joking, half-exasperated.
“I understand that ignorance is not tolerable,” he says, “but if you don’t want people to be ignorant, you’ve got to educate them. I’m not saying I’m trying to save the world, I’m just expressing myself to the best of my abilities. I just want people to feel where I am coming from.”
Regime change at the top in the US is far from enough to assuage Curry of his disdain for the current plight of his home country. “When people start thinking, ‘Okay, I’m not going to just wait for the president, I’m going to be the change today’, that’s when everything will change. Until then, nothing will change.”
The new generation that Curry was said to represent in the middle of the last decade has often been lazily described, and often dismissed, as ‘Soundcloud rap’, a self-made, lo-fi form of hip-hop that gravitated towards woozy, ambient atmospheres and emotive, melodic vocals. In truth, Curry’s music was always an outlier among the group, having always had more to do with hardcore and drill than many of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he saw some of his peers such as the late XXXTentacion, a former housemate of Curry’s, shoot into superstardom in a short space of time, leaving Curry in a difficult position.
“I just wish my attitude would have been better,” he says. “I felt like the world and all these artists owed me, but truthfully, they didn’t owe me shit. I was just dealing with my own depression at the time, which I didn’t know. I didn’t appreciate that moment and I can’t get those moments back.”
Along with embracing therapy, he credits taking up the martial art Muay Thai in 2017 with improving his mental state in this regard. The added perspective of having had a few years to reflect on the sudden impact of being at the centre of such a whirlwind has also helped him to realise that it is the long game that matters the most to him.
“I’m still here, still on the up and up. It’s like what Nipsey [Hussle] said, I’d rather get slow money than fast money, because with slow money, it’s going to always come in. Fast money, you get it one day and it’s gone the next day. I take pride in being the tortoise, because slow and steady does win the race. It’s about pacing yourself; a lot of these guys are burnt out because they didn’t pace themselves.”
“I had to make those records first to make this one, I had to mature first. Back then, I was still trying to be the man, trying to be like my peers. I wasn’t playing the game right, I should’ve just been myself the whole time. This is the overall theme of the album: me becoming a man and the future that lies ahead for me, good or bad. I turned 25 while recording this album, this is the age that Tupac died at. Reaching a quarter of a century is the primary focus, and dealing with the past along the way.”
The image of a man on a long quest to find out who he really is forms the basis of the video for the album’s lead single, ‘Walkin’, in which Curry is seen walking alone through a spaghetti Western landscape, like Harry Dean Stanton at the start of Wim Wenders’ cult 1984 road movie, Paris, Texas. Curry considers the video to be a trailer for the album at large, the message of the whole project in a snapshot.
Cinema has been a constant presence in Curry’s music since day one and Make My Eyez is no exception. One track is named ‘Sanjuro’, after the 1962 Akira Kurosawa jidaigeki classic, starring Curry’s favourite actor, Toshiro Mifune, whose name and work is woven through the album like gossamer thread.
“I watched a documentary called Mifune: The Last Samurai and it gave me the knowledge I needed to know that my records need to move. Art needs to have movement at all times,” he says. It bleeds into his other creative endeavours, too, including a series of manga-inspired comic books that he and his friends work on during the creative process. The two pursuits work as respite for each other; at the first sign of burnout with his music, he turns his attention to the comic books, and vice versa, ensuring that his artistic drive never lulls.
It is the same desire to heighten his focus at all times that drove his decision to leave Florida and relocate to Los Angeles five years ago. “You eventually outgrow your city and if you don’t leave, you’re going to be stagnant,” he says. “Anyway, the majority of people I want to work with are out here. They weren’t in Miami, they go to Miami to get away from work!”
Muay Thai has taught Denzel Curry the importance of knowing when to strike, and judging by the enthusiasm in his voice whenever he speaks about Melt My Eyez, See Your Future, he knows that this time he is about to land a haymaker.
If there is any anxiety at all, it is just in the form of impatience that it has taken this long for the world to get to hear it. “I just want this material out, and I want people to listen to it. I’m not playing with nobody. Once they see the videos, that’s going to be the point where they see, I’m not like none of you.”
He pauses, and you wonder if the ‘you’ in question still refers to his peer group that he feels never quite granted him the credit that he deserved.
“This is the year when they’ll stop trying me and start respecting me,” he continues, his voice speeding up. “I know with this record, there’s nothing to worry about. They’re going to like this, there’s no hating on this.
“I’m pretty sure this is the one album that’s undeniable. This is good. And I’m going to make a better album after this.”
From the cover of Loud And Quiet 151. Order a copy here
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