Denzel Curry seems much older than 21. Maybe it’s because he joined Raider Klan when he was 16 years-old, but whatever the reason may be, Curry has his shit together. The rapper from Carol City, Florida has been cultivating solo material since he departed Raider Klan a few years back, but Imperial, his album released this year, is far and away his most impressive work to date. Beginning with “ULT,” Imperial is a defining statement in Curry’s brief career. The album has cultivated enough of an audience to earn a re-issue with Loma Vista, the label Curry will be working with in the future.
But Curry has no interest in ceding creative control for popularity. He aims to marry the two, and Loma Vista seems to be the best place to do so. When I talk with with Curry, he returns again and again to the concepts of structure and form—something he says he’s learned from listening to 2Pac’s music. Imperial is a tight record, ten tracks all adhering to similar musical cues. The album’s cohesiveness is one of its greatest strengths, which Curry actively acknowledges. When I meet with him in Austin, Texas, he’s getting ready for a set at the Sound on Sound Festival later that night. We talk about his work with Adidas, his next album, and growing up in Florida. —Will Schube
Have you ever been to Austin before?
Denzel Curry:Yeah, several times.
How do you like it?
Denzel Curry:It’s cool. We did South By and stuff last year.
How’s your tour going so far?
Denzel Curry:It just started. Jacksonville was tight.
Did Boogie join you for the first leg of the tour too?
Denzel Curry:Boogie is gonna be on the whole tour. He was on the earlier leg, too.
How did that go?
Denzel Curry:It went really well. I like the West Coast better than the East Coast. There were certain dates on the East Coast that I didn’t like. I like Seattle, I like Portland, I like Eugene, Salt Lake City…Wait, Salt Lake isn’t the West Coast is it?
It’s close enough.
Denzel Curry:Kinda. Midwest?
It’s on Mountain Time with Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Denzel Curry:I’ve never been to Las Vegas. Santa Ana is tight. I always like going there.
Are you gonna check out other acts at the Sound on Sound Festival?
Denzel Curry:Yeah. I’m gonna check out Big Boi, Death Grips…Their sets are before mine. Thundercat’s playing, I ran into him downstairs earlier. He’s tight.
Do you switch up your set at all for a festival date as opposed to a tour date?
Denzel Curry:Due to time restrictions we have to switch up the set. We really have to cut down time. On tour I’ll play for an hour, but at festivals they give us 30 minutes—40 minutes at most.
Going back a little bit, it’s been a wild few months for you. From the XXL Freshmen cover to the Adidas commercial. Has your day to day life changed at all?
Denzel Curry:A lot of people recognize me from the XXL thing, and it gives them a gateway to my music. When I did an interview and freestyle for them, everybody said I killed both of those.
Are there any other artists on the Freshmen list that you’d like to work with?
Denzel Curry:Kodak. For sure. Lil Herb. I wanna work with Lil Dickey. On some entertainment type shit, not on any musical shit. Don’t get me wrong, he has good music, but like…He’s a real entertainer. Lil Yachty, of course. Lil Uzi.
Did you design your tour merchandise yourself? The stuff looks awesome.
Denzel Curry:Yeah I designed it. It was a collaborative piece. Most of them were my ideas.
Are you a big fashion guy?
Denzel Curry:No. Black is my only fashion because that’s the only thing I can rock without being judged.
How’d the Adidas commercial come about?
Denzel Curry:They hit us up. They like the song, they like “Ultimate.” They came in contact with my managers, and we were into it. They let us know how much we were getting paid for it and they premiered it.
Was it crazy seeing your song on TV?
Denzel Curry:Yeah it was nuts.
Loma Vista is an interesting label choice for you because they don’t work with a ton of rappers. Why did you decide to go with them?
Denzel Curry:They had everything I wanted.
And what’s that?
Denzel Curry:Creative control, my masters…Basically, creative freedom.
Did you have much to do with the Imperial re-issue?
Denzel Curry:We had to revise the record. We created two new tracks, one of which I was gonna use for my next project, Taboo, but we just put it on Imperial instead. After we got those two finished we released the record.
How far into your new record are you?
Denzel Curry:Yeah I’m working on it as we speak. It has to be done and finalized before Halloween next year.
How do you imagine it being different from Imperial?
Denzel Curry:I’m gonna go deeper with subject matter. There’s gonna be a lot more singing, too. More poetry. There’s gonna be rapping on there of course. It’s all going to be structured into well written songs.
You want to do more singing?
Denzel Curry:Yeah. Because I know I can sing.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
Denzel Curry:I like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, I love when Andre 3000 sings. I like T-Pain, Sade, Erykah Badu. There are a lot of singers I really like. I love Michael Jackson, James Brown, Kid Cudi. Shit, I like Rihanna. After I saw her live I really like her. It turns out I like a lot of singers [laughs].
It seems like you keep a really tight group. Do you have any interest in expanding and collaborating with some other names now that you have some more notoriety?
Denzel Curry:Yeah. It just has to be the right situation. It has to be a collaboration between worlds. It has to fit sonically.
Who’s at the top of that list for you?
Denzel Curry:Realistically? Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt…Those are some good names.
You were 16 when you were in Raider Klan. Do you think that early success has helped prepared you to be as level-headed as you are now?
Denzel Curry:I wasn’t even successful at that age. I got successful when I left Raider Klan. It was a whole bunch of different personalities in one group. Everyone in Raider Klan was a character. I had several different personas based on my mood while I was in that clique. I evolved so many personalities before I became Ultimate. That’s where I’m at now. But that was later on. It was an all-star group of characters with different styles. But at the same time, it’s like Wu-Tang Clan…You know how you have GZA, who can do a solo project but he’s still Wu-Tang? It was like that for Raider Klan.
But you’re in the rare position where I think you grew out of it. I doubt anyone would consider you or Simmie Raider Klan first and a solo artist second.
Denzel Curry:Simmie still reps Raider Klan, but yeah, I agree.
What was growing up in that Florida rap scene like?
Denzel Curry:The Florida rap scene when I was coming up, it was way different than when anyone else was coming up. Everybody tries to drag each other down. Where I’m from, it’s like a crab in a bucket. You don’t want to see the next man make it, but our generation, everyone wants to see each other make it. You know, we all decided we weren’t gonna be dragged down by anybody. There’s no stopping it. It’s just building the next person up. Everyone sees the system of Atlanta or Chicago, where everyone’s helping each other. You see that on the West Coast, too. Everybody pops.
In Miami it’s hard for that because there are so many egos. Everybody wants to be the dude and no one wants to play their position. In order to be where you’re at, you have to play your position. When I was in Raider Klan, I had to play my position. I played it well until I felt like I needed to take that next step.
When you sit down to write do you have specific themes you want to tackle?
Denzel Curry:I just get going. Whatever I feel at that time, whatever specific emotions I have. I just run with it. If I force something out, it’s not going to come out as good as I expect it to be. I started to freestyle more while working on Taboo. I’m trying to get more flows out, in hopes of utilizing the best thing to create something powerful within those words.
If you’re not working on music what do you like to do?
Denzel Curry:Draw. Well right now I like doing anything. I just learned how to fly a plane in Colorado. It’s like driving a car. Once you get off the ground it’s really like driving a car. I learned how to ride dirt bikes, too. Shoot guns. I don’t know when I’m gonna leave, you know? I don’t know when my last day’s gonna be on this Earth. So I’m just trying to learn as much as possible and have fun doing it. Good clean fun.
Do you like being on tour?
Denzel Curry:I mean, it’s a fun job. But at the end of the day it is a job. It’s fun because you get to go to places you’ve never seen, but I’ve toured America now several times. I know what places look like and what other places don’t look like. This year I just went to Vermont for the first time. You get to see new places and encounter new types of people. You try to get a real understanding…I traveled to Russia. It was all love, but it’s a different world over there.
People don’t always remember that it is a job.
Denzel Curry:It’s a great job! There’s mental stress, but once you get your privacy and peace you’ll be back to normal.
Do you have a favorite song on Imperial?
Denzel Curry:“This Life” because it’s the most different song I did for that project. I was able to fully comprehend my emotions and utilize it. I think I nailed that one right on the head.
If you’re writing a hook or a track like “ULT,” do you immediately know it’s going to be popular?
Denzel Curry:When I was creating “ULT,” it was derived from a flow I created on another track but it was completely freestyled. It eventually turned into, [Denzel sings] “This is the rap of Aquarius/I am the black metal terrorist/Ain’t no comparison/Humanitarian/Bitch I’m a veteran better than anyone comprehends.” I just took the flow and wrote inside the bars. When the first verse was done, Mark [Curry’s manager] was like…He pulled a Murphy Lee on me! He was like, “What’s the hook gonna be?” I just thought of the hook [singing] “In the night time/Keep me out of sight.” That’s how it came about.
To me, I just felt like it was a great song. That hook is so melodic! Imperial did well because it was a well structured project.
What do you attribute that to?
Denzel Curry:Just listening to songs. I was mostly listening to 2Pac songs while creating Imperial. The way he would structure songs—he would start things off similarly or finish them similarly. Repetition comes from poetry, and poetry is often utilized in rap. That’s why I thought about doing Imperial within a structure.
A lot of mixtapes you get now are 18, 19, 20 songs. Imperial definitely stands out because it’s really tight, cohesive, and precise.
Denzel Curry:Yeah. I wanted to keep it low. It didn’t make room for error. Once you hit 20 tracks, you leave a lot of room for error. Out of those 20 tracks, no matter what, there are like 5 I won’t like. Even if it’s your favorite artist. When I was creating Imperial, instead of 14 or 15 tracks…Fuck that. Keep it at 10. Great projects are short. Illmatic was raw, but it was short. Very concise, very compact records.
How would you describe your live show?
Denzel Curry:Ultimate. Lots of energy. Lots of fire emojis. Devil emojis everywhere. It’s spectacular and it’s a movie.