Catch Dean Van Nguyen bumping Will Smith in South Beach.
After pummeling his way out of the crowded South Florida Soundcloud rap world, Denzel Curry has become a man apart. He may have initially come to fame under the imprimatur of Raider Klan, but the Carol City star has gradually moved away from the sub-genre’s scuzzy stylings and towards a multifaceted methodology. You could tell he was evolving as early as 2016 album Imperial. There were highlights buried on the record’s back-end—everyday struggles anthem “This Life,” Miami-New York fusion bop “Zenith”—that suggested he had the capacity to master styles that expanded well beyond Soundcloud rap’s outer walls.
The punchy hooks, battering beats, wild shock tactics, and general feeling of disposability made Soundcloud rap an absolute petri dish for viral hits. Yet Curry has refused to trade in a click economy. Last year’s TA13OO was a captivating encapsulation of the chaos and disorder of youth that dealt in suicidal thoughts and strained relationships. It was bleak and often brilliant, but it was held back by occasional awkward bits as Curry’s experiments sometimes failed to synthesize in the way he might have envisioned. You can’t deny his on-mic presence, though. Take “Black Balloons Reprise,” a highlight from Flying Lotus’s latest freak-out Flamagra—only the universe’s most gifted warlocks are offered the chance to impose their personality onto a FlyLo project. Now, Curry blesses us with ZUU, a project that sees him—as a rapper, writer, and album-maker—deliver on his promise.
Curry wins by keeping the focus on his geographical roots. ZUU is as much a Miami album as YG’s Stay Dangerous is a Los Angeles record or Wiki’s No Mountains in Manhattan is a New York record. If this is the best full-length to come from a South Beach soldier this year, it’s because Curry has found a way to reconcile multiple facets of one of America’s true pop culture epicenters. The spirit of Miami bass ripples through “Shake 88.” Local czar Ice Billion Berg brags about his bankroll on “Carolmart,” a throwback to a time when Trick Daddy helped bring Miami into the Southern rap network. “Wish” bathes in a sunshine swagger that could set off The Babylon Club. Curry and Rick Ross roll cocaine wraps in Rozay’s Cadillac on “Birdz.” There’s the chants of “Boy, we comin’ out the Zuu, Zuu, Zuu” on the booming Soundcloud sounds of the title track, one of many shout-outs to Curry’s Carol City origins. The cover even pays homage to ‘90s heroes Poison Clan. The only way this thing could have been more M.I.A. is if Don Johnson had been tapped for a skit.
Don’t get it twisted: Curry is no retro avatar. For all the appreciation for its stylistic forefathers, ZUU never wallows in genre clichés. Soundcloud rap is often accused of being anti-lyrical but Curry is a rapper with a thick book of rhymes. Peppering his writing with textured imagery and a dexterity of themes, he’s a master of one-liners (“Used to be on LSD but now my life is all a trip,” he raps on “Automatic”) and cutting imagery (“We carry hollow tips ’cause it reflects what’s in my soul, damn,” from “P.A.T.”). Then there’s the flashes of Curry’s backstory: “Ricky,” an ode to his dad, finds Denzel remembering colorful details about his youth, taking the lessons his parents once buried into his id (“Trust no man but your brothers,” for example) and turning them into one of the record’s best hooks.
Given the presence of coke rap kingpin Rick Ross on “Birdz,” you might have expected “Speedboat” to draw from Rozay’s taste for rapping about drug running. Instead, Curry pays homage to fallen friend XXXTentacion. Rather than a garish symbol of wealth and success, the titular speedboat sounds more like a metaphor for an intrusive, unruly presence in Curry’s life. “My dawg didn’t make it to 21,” he mourns, “so I gotta make it past 24.” It’s a reminder among the good times, he’s an emcee who carries a significant emotional resonance.
Whatever the subject matter, Curry has gusto to burn, shuffling through different flows like they’re Mahjong tiles. See how he vigorously chants every line of “Automatic” while still making the verses sound cohesive, or switches to a distinct half-stuttering, half-melodic style on “Speedboat.” It’s fair to say that Curry’s voice doesn’t appear to be a particularly distinctive instrument—that is, until you fully experience just how he uses it.
Clocking in at less that 30 minutes, there’s a precision to ZUU. With no fat to trim and plenty of meat on its bones, Curry has created an album that feels deeply personal without being straight autobiographical, equally playable in the club as it is on the freeway, packed with personality while giving all due respect to its geographical roots. It’s a record that sets a new high watermark for anybody to break out of the Soundcloud straight-jacket—a record of significant excellence without ever feeling like he’s weighed down by the idea of making a classic album. Miami has a new iconic cultural artifact to place alongside Sonny Crocket’s pastel jackets, Tony Montana’s tiger skin-decorated Cadi, and Gloria Estefan.