Max Harrison-Caldwell runs five miles daily.
When I saw Denzel Curry in LA last March, I was impressed, almost to distraction, by his stamina. He had just released Imperial and the first four songs in his set were the first four on the album. He rapped each one all the way through at top volume, fully screaming into the microphone, without running out of breath at all. After the show he was behind his own merch stand passing t-shirts to sweaty fans and I asked him how he was able to rap so viciously for so long, seemingly without breathing.
“I run. Get your cardio up.” I tried to ask him follow up questions about his exercise regimen but he was already handing a shirt to another beaming customer.
Over a year later, Denzel is still running shit—kind of. On his new EP, 13, the South Florida native has stayed true to his militant flow, even as his area has become famous for the less lyrical, crash-a-Porsche-into-a-wall sound of Lil Pump and XXXTentacion. The Denzel of 2016 rapped, “Rather get caught with it than without it if I keep it concealed when I carry it,” an interesting meditation on the risks and benefits of concealing a weapon. He also challenged his unoriginal colleagues, rapping, “How the fuck the rap game become a beauty pageant/ Fugaze ass rappers tryna sound like Atlanta/ ‘Cause they got no identity.”
On 13, Denzel addresses these same themes, but via fecal metaphors that somehow don’t drive his message home as sharply. “My gun got diarrhea when it BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP BOOP,” while hilarious, is not as compelling as his previous thoughts on the subject, and the especially unfortunate diss, “All these other rappers hella Pooh, no Winnie” somehow lacks the finesse of 2016 Denzel’s assessment.
Where Imperial was diverse in subject matter, challenging police brutality and encouraging individual expression, 13 is uniform in its hardness and doesn’t offer the optimism that Denzel brought on his last project. He raps some variation of the word “murder” on every track except “Heartless,” a song on which he repeatedly cautions his enemies that they’re not prepared for war. He even alludes to large-scale terrorism on “Equalizer,” saying, “I got that shit that could take out New York/ I do not fuck with the population.” On “Zeltron 6 Billion,” a track released a week early as a single, Denzel claims, “You could be a statue and you still won’t be as hard as me.” It’s not that this violent lyrical bravado didn’t appear on previous projects, just that it was mixed in with other, more positive lyrics.
On Imperial, he struggled with police suspecting him of drug dealing because of his new money (“Narcotics”) and worried that his changing circumstances would affect his relationships (“This Life”). Whereas the Denzel of “Bloodshed” yells, “Being too nice isn’t giving a fuck/ ‘Cause these Internet n****s be thinking I’m soft.” Whereas on Imperial’s “Gook” he celebrates his own weirdness, 13 reflects with lines like, “In this world I feel like a terrarium” and “I am so ugly, I am so ugly.” As the tape progresses it shows an increasingly paranoid figure who feels that everyone is looking into him (like a terrarium) and judging him. In retaliation, Denzel responds to those who judge him with unbridled defensive aggression.
The beats certainly match the tone of the lyrics. Clanging metal, almost grungy distortion, and heavy bass characterize 13, especially on “Hate Government” and “Heartless” (which, according to Denzel, was recorded on GarageBand with no mic). The rapturous, dramatic vocal samples of “Story No Title,” off last year’s Imperial, pale in comparison to the frightening, alien sounds of “Bloodshed.” On SoundCloud, each song on the tape is classified as a demo, and the tracks do sound unmastered, matching the rawness of Denzel’s delivery.
Despite its flaws, 13’s strength lies in the harmony of its violent elements and the energy that Denzel consistently delivers. He has managed to push his grimy sound to new heights, pleasing old fans looking for the same hunger they heard on Nostalgic 64 and advancing his sound with increasingly distorted instrumentals. He has also avoided exhausting the listener; while an opening string of bangers sometimes builds up hype that’s hard to maintain throughout a longer project (one of the flaws of Imperial), it works perfectly for a five-song EP.
Most importantly, when I listen to 13 I can see a ferocious Denzel on stage, rapping his ass off without pausing for breath. Denzel delivers the same hype on this tape that he brings at his shows and that’s an important quality to hold on to. When he says he’s ultimate, it’s a warning. Get your cardio up.