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Denzel Curry's 'Ta1300 Tour' Brings Cash, Coffins, Psychedelics, Evil Clowns & Black Balloons to New York
When Billboard last spoke to Denzel Curry, he was stone-cold silent on any details of what his next live show would look, sound or feel like -- but you had to know it would be special. He had just released TA13OO, not only his most accomplished project to date and one of the most impactful and introspective hip-hop records of the year, but also a work that lends itself to the visual. That much was clear with the fraught videos for “Clout Cobain” and last month’s “Vengeance," and including manic features from JPEGMAFIA and a cleaver-wielding ZillaKami. So there was plenty to work with for a live rendering which Zeltron brought to New York’s Gramercy Theatre on Tuesday night (Oct. 10), for two shows.
Gramercy is an oddly laid-out space, an old theatre with seats above and an open floor below, and at the sold-out early show, that floor was already packed for opening sets by North Carolina’s J.K. the Reaper, the rapid-fire Curry protégé and kindred spirit (their association dates back Curry’s Nostalgic 64 debut in 2013), and underground war dogs City Morgue. “Fiery” doesn’t do justice to their performance, which was fire, with Sos constantly exhorting the crowd to “open this shit up” and form a mosh pit. They complied. Then, it was Zel time.
Like the album that inspired it, the TA13OO live show is laid out in three acts, a curtain opening and closing on a video screen before each, and leads off like the record: “Welcome to the darker side of taboo,” Denzel sang as he emerged, in a white tee and red pants, for the soulful, easygoing title track that belies life lessons and emotional scars, followed by the tuneful “Black Balloons," the crowd singing in unison with its irresistible “let it float” chorus. On the LP, that hook is sung by Denzel and his Florida homie Twelve’Len, but on this night it was given a more muscular take, with Curry shouting those words along with himself on track.
It also quickly became apparent that along with Denzel, the other star of this show would be its visuals, particularly the work of Baltimore artist Kyle Yearwood, a self-described “architect of realities." For “Ta13oo” the backdrop was trippy -- flowers, panthers, blimps and yes, black balloons, an image which would surface numerous times throughout the night, most memorably in one stark, spooky shot of Zeltron holding a bunch of them, a la Pennywise. Next came two from Nostalgic 64, “Parents” and “Denny Cascade," the druggy, mid-tempo track illustrated on screen by a wild-eyed Zel over kaleidoscopic designs. For a drug-free guy, Act 1’s visuals were plenty psychedelic.
“How many of you have heard TA13OO?” Curry asked. The room erupted. “Now, how many of you have actually spent money and bought it?” he added, no doubt knowing the answer. A smattering of cheers. Points for honesty, at least? No worries -- funds are apparently not a problem for Denzel, a fact emphasized in “Cash Maniac” -- and in the boastful “Sumo," which had Curry getting truly aggro for the first time in the night as an image of his face spitting up dollars played behind him.
Act 2 varied thematically, but it began by taking on the haters. “U-L-T! U-L-T!” the 500-strong Gramercy crowd chanted as the familiar intro to the 2016 Imperial’s lead track played. “This is the wrath of Aquarius,” Zel declared as he returned to the stage (one of the rapper’s many fixations is his astrological sign).
“Switch It Up” followed, the trap standout from TA13OO, with a lead verse on which Curry goofily borrows from Hamlet and which frantically gives voice to bipolar disorder and fake friends: “They only know Denzel Curry/But they don’t really know Denzel." And there’s the rub, as the Prince of Denmark would say: Zel’s only beginning to figure himself out. How could we presume to know him? And finally for his critics, there was “Mad I Got It.” Cue Denzel behind bars on screen, in a Hannibal Lecter mask and flanked by ringmasters in clown face.
The section got topical with TA13OO’s most political track, “Sirens,” in which Zel rails about police shootings, the political system, violence, Trayvon Martin and his late brother Tree. There was “Black Balloons 2," a Flying Lotus collab that will appear on the ingenious L.A. producer’s next album, and finally, the exceptional “Clout Cobain,” backed of course by scenes from that unforgettable music video.
What was left but to go harder? That’s what Zel’s Act 3 delivered: “Gook” from Imperial and “Percs,” his TA13OO shot-across-the-bow to some of his more proudly “ignant” drug-celebrating contemporaries whose outrageousness so often seem to suck up all the media oxygen. Tonight, to reinforce the point, it was punctuated by images of a geeked-out Denzel, coffins and skeletons. There was a pause to get real and honor XXXTentacion, and we got “I’m Sippin Tea in Yo Hood” and “Look at Me” before the intensity returned: 2015’s flailing “Ultimate," which may have gotten the biggest crowd of reaction of the night, and the ferocious “Black Metal Terrorist,” for which Zel formed a mosh pit of his own. “Finish em Zel!!” it cries. And he did…almost.
There was even a video curtain raiser for the encore, the fierce “Threatz” and, to finish, “Vengeance” -- for which he was joined by a crew of 15 on stage, not least the madman ZillaKami, who delivered his verse and more, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. As for Denzel, even at his most vengeful, there’s something welcoming and inclusive about him now, which brings to mind that line in “Cash Maniac”: “Balance my chi now, I’m feeling fantastic.” It shows. TA13OO is a fascinating document of an artist looking inward, creating more compelling work as he grows. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?
During a quick post-show hello, Zel’s manager approached to let the rapper know that he’d be going on in the late show around midnight. “You’re up for two shows like that, back to back?” I asked. “Yeah,” he shrugged. “Of course. I’m Denzel.”
That he is.