What a summer it’s been for hip-hop releases: Since Memorial Day, save Kendrick Lamar, seemingly every major name in rap has released a new project. And while some have been met with predictable commercial success, few have received universal acclaim from fans and critics.
But to find an artist who has reached a personal best with his latest, look back no further than to the release of the dramatic, eclectic, poetic three-act TA13OO, the latest from Denzel Curry, native South Floridian, now Southern Californian, and an artist for whom the term “underground” can probably finally be retired.
With all the promise of Curry’s early work with Miami’s Raider Klan, his 2013 debut Nostalgic 64 and 2016’s taut, fraught Imperial, nothing quite prepares listeners for TA13OO’s wild ride. It was a record that took time to construct — a commodity not often available to artists in this blink-and-you-miss-it era — but as the rapper told the Everyday Struggle podcast in the midst of the album’s three-day rollout, he needed that time to “figure out” who he was and the kind of record he wanted to make, and to put some distance between himself and the place he grew up.
Zel was South Florida before there was “South Florida,” as the term is now used as shorthand for a certain kind of hip-hop sound and scene, but he relocated to Los Angeles, and TA13OO is a world away from the druggy, dark mentality that dominates much of the underground in 2018. Early TA13OO single “Percs” which clapped back at that world, and “Sumo”—both released in the spring—delivered on the hard-hitting Zel sound we’d come to know.
But the album offers many more flavors, not least on the too-real “Clout Cobain,” an indictment of a IG-addicted society that celebrates clout and pain in equal measure, and blithely mythologizes death, until it’s on to life’s next tragedy. The song has become a monster — one of Curry’s biggest to date, due in no small part to a harrowing, circus-from-hell video that depicts the rapper as a mime-faced performer who dances for a big top crowd and considers a live streamed suicide, all while sporting a Kurt Cobain-striped shirt. Elsewhere, along with bruisers like “Vengeance” and “Black Metal Terrorist,” sung, melodic hooks abound on TA13OO, from a feature from LA breakout teen Billie Eilish on “Sirens” — otherwise the album’s most political track — to opener “Ta13oo,” a sentimental song about connecting with a victim of sexual abuse, and “Black Balloons”, a descendant of Outkast, with an addictive chorus.
There are pop culture references from all over the map on the LP — movies, music, anime, martial arts and Shakespeare — a far cry from much of what has recently put Dade and Broward counties on the musical map. Zel says he doesn’t go back to Florida much; the last time he did, he ended up having to stay twice as long when his friend and one-time housemate XXXTentacion was brutally gunned down outside a motorcycle dealership.
If Curry hasn’t entirely exorcised his own demon — they include the death of his brother in 2014, and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, who attended Curry’s high school — he’s made big strides, channeling his energy into drawing, Muay Thai, which keeps him “balanced,” and of course, the music. TA13OO has rightly won him more attention than ever, debuting at No. 28 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, with a tour to support it launching in September. “When I win a Grammy,” Curry declares in “Percs,” “I’ma take it back to Dade.”
Who knows with the Grammys — but trophy or not, TA13OO is a triumph, and a new career jolt for an artist that’s clearly got much more to say. Zel had plenty to say when Billboard caught up with him on the phone, just days after a New York swing that included a record release show at a sweltering Market Hotel in Brooklyn.
Congratulations on the response to TA13OO. The previous records made an impact, especially Imperial, but this feels like on another level. And maybe there are even people just discovering you through this record, even after all this time.
Yeah, it’s kind of weird because I’ve been out for such a long time, and nobody was giving me my credit, or really even acknowledging me. And then when this record came about and I finally finished it, and then “Clout Cobain” grabbed a lot of people’s attention, both the video and the song. It was something different from what I normally do. So then yeah, people were looking at me, like, “Wait, I know this dude from somewhere.” And they might have thought about “Ultimate,” cause that was the last song people really heard from me. Even though I put out mad songs and stuff — people wasn’t trying to pay attention.
Do you think it’s “Clout Cobain” the song, or the video that’s made the difference?
It’s a combination of the two. Like if we would have released “Clout Cobain” without the video, people would be like, “Ohh…” and they would have just pushed it to the side, because they don’t see the vision. But the fact that we added the visual along with the song, it made people understand — or even if they didn’t understand, it made people talk about it. With “Clout Cobain,” when I made the song, I knew what I wanted to say. But I was gonna say it in a way where people could understand it. My main thing was, “Y’all are killing yourselves over materialistic stuff. But y’all don’t really see what’s really going on.”
Do you feel like we’re still in a time when addiction, pain and depression and even suicide or death are in a way glorified?
Yeah, that’s why they glorify Kurt Cobain — they glorify him for the wrong reasons. People will be like, “I want to take mad drugs, I want to be like Kurt Cobain, I want to die at 27.” Glorified rock shit.
Ever since “Percs” came out, I feel like you’ve been asked a lot of questions about the drug references in the song, and also a lot of questions that try to put you in opposition to some of the young guys that are out there, and most of the time, you go out of your way to say, “Look, this is not about saying anything against Lil Pump or Trippie Redd or 6ix9ine or whoever, but just that there ought to be room for other kinds of music to get shine.”
Exactly. That’s my whole point. Because I felt slept on — like, seriously slept on — and this is the first time in a long time where I don’t feel slept on, because everybody is listening. It even got to a point where everybody started apologizing for sleeping on me, and I was just like, “C’mon.” But I addressed it, when I said I have no problem with any of these dudes. You know what I mean? But I’m just watching the whole game get over-saturated with the same shit. That’s basically what the song is about — and I even say in it, and I quote, “I’m not even tryin to hate, I’m just sayin what I ain’t.”
And then more traditional-minded people will comment on YouTube or wherever and say, “Denzel’s the real shit. He’s gonna ‘save’ hip hop from this other nonsense.” But I would imagine that you don’t want to be put in the position of being the one that’s having to carry that torch either.
Aw no. I’m not carrying no torch. I’m just saying that I want to make the best shit possible, and I’m gonna do it regardless of who’s in my way. And I’m not gonna be important just to hip hop. I’m gonna be important to all genres of music. I’ve proved with TA13OO that I’m versatile as hell. Now it’s just self-mastery. I’m in a self-mastery stage of my life right now.
You have a line in “Blackest Balloon” about how “ain’t shit changed since Lil Peep died.” And I think that’s true, in the sense that after Peep’s death a lot of people were swearing off drugs…
They were lying.
I mean, not nine months later you’ve got something like Pump’s “Drug Addicts” video with Charlie Sheen, which I have to admit was a funny video. Can you laugh at something like that?
I can laugh at it, but at the same time, I’m not a drug addict. You feel me?
It seems like your move to California was really pivotal to getting to the place where you could make this record. Was there just one day where you were like, “I’ve got to make a change?” Or was it a feeling that was building over time?
It was definitely a feeling that was building over time. It was building to a point where it was just, “Fuck this bro. I’m not trying to be caught up with some dumbass n—as trying to just be hating on me for no reason. I’m done with my ex, I’m not trying to deal with her bullshit anymore. I’m not trying to deal with my family, or living in my parents’ house.” I just wasn’t trying to deal with none of that. Arguments every day, and — it was just the writing on the wall where it was like, either you’re gonna be not happy, staying in Miami, or find your happiness and get away for a while, and just see how everybody does without you.
And you don’t go back to Florida much?
Nah. The one time I went back, X got killed. X, my parents, everybody was trying to convince me to come home. Just to like see them and shit. So I went to stay down there, and it was like, “All right I’m gonna be here for a week, it’s cool.” But then it was like, boom, X died. And I had to stay another week.
I saw you tell a story about being out in a store, right after it happened, and you were feeling like, “I shouldn’t be in here?” Like it felt too hot?
Yeah, ’cause everybody was just like — they was recognizing me in the store, and everybody was like, “Oh that’s Denzel Curry right there.” So I was just like… especially because summertime in South Florida is one of the most crazy time periods to be in South Florida, because a lot of murders happen then. There’s a very dark, like demonic energy that surrounds Florida. And that’s why I left in the first place, because I didn’t want to get caught within that energy. Even my brother told me he got shot at, and I’m about to get him out of the hood, take him on tour so he can sell merchandise. So I can put money in his pocket.
Right after X was killed, Joe Budden, on his podcast, talked about the importance when he was coming up of getting out of his hood as soon as he could afford to. He was like, “I got out of Dodge.” Is that advice you would agree with?
I would recommend it. Home is where the heart is, but it’s also where the hate is as well. And I don’t need negative energy around me. A lot of people get killed in their home city.
Did you know many people when you moved out to L.A.?
I knew people, but not to say like, “Can I stay over here?” If it wasn’t for my current girlfriend Kelly, I would never have had a place to stay. And she was just my friend at the time.
You seem to have a lot of insight and empathy for someone who’s only 23. On the song “Ta13oo” you have empathy for a victim of sexual abuse, and early this year you spoke about X to Montreality and said that, “If you are an abuser, you have most likely yourself been abused.”
Well, the thing about abuse is it’s just a cycle of hatred. The person who is gonna abuse you has been abused and he continues that same cycle of hatred. Because I was also part of that vicious cycle, until I broke the chain by being real with myself. But it’s a real cycle that people don’t see every day. And the way to break that chain is to be real with yourself, and say, “I’m gonna try to be better, and do better, you know?” So I don’t even know if it’s empathy. I think it’s just having something that you can relate to, because it happens to a lot of people.
On “Sirens,” you’ve got Billie Eilish singing on the hook. How did she get involved?
Billie’s like my homie. She’s like my little sister. Me and her are really close. I’m one of her favorite rappers, and now I’m kind of like a brother to her, I help her out and stuff.
“Sirens” has the line “There’s a time to stand your ground,” and later in the song you reference Trayvon Martin, who you’ve mentioned on past records like “Zone 3” [from Nostalgic 64]. And I knew you went to the same high school, but I only recently realized you and Trayvon were born literally like 11 days apart.
Yeah, he was an Aquarius like me. And I never met him, but he was a fan of Raider Klan’s music.
In that multi-part Trayvon documentary Rest in Power that’s currently airing, the thesis is that his death was this defining event sparked the rise of Black Lives Matter — but also in response, some of the more overt racism and white nationalism that we have seen under Trump really come much more out in the open. Do you agree that his death was a defining moment?
Yeah, of course. Because he didn’t get no justice. Every time a cop kills a black teen they justify it because they wear a badge. And you can hear it in songs like Rage Against the Machine, “Killing In the Name” — “Those that died are justified/ For wearing the badge/ They’re the chosen whites” — you know what I’m saying? That’s real. George Zimmerman can use the “Stand Your Ground” law and get away with it, but if I use it — if ’m gonna stand my ground, and the other person just happens to be white, I’m going to jail. Simple as that.
You have that line in “Ultimate”  about “I don’t need a gun to get respect.” You don’t write lyrics about guns nearly as much as a lot of guys do, and they’re not really prominent in your videos anymore. Where are you on gun control laws? Should there be an assault weapons ban, as Vic Mensa recently called for?
Well, I won’t say that if you ban guns — banning the guns ain’t gonna do anything. Because people will still try to find a weapon that they can get their hands on and take you out. It’s not really the guns, it’s the mental stability of the people.
What about activism? Where are you on the idea that artists who have a large platform or megaphone have a responsibility to use it for something that matters beyond themselves?
You can’t expect somebody to speak out on a certain subject. If they want to say something about it, then say something about it. But artists have a choice. It’s their choice. I choose the stuff I talk about, but it’s not my responsibility to do it.
You’ve said before that you didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, and you mention it again in “Sirens.” Was that because you didn’t think your vote would matter? And do you plan to vote this year?
Well for president, the vote of the people are just suggestions — the Electoral College picks the president. We’re just suggestions. Everybody could vote against Donald Trump, but that don’t mean shit because the Electoral College can be like, “Eh, we’ll think about it.” That’s that way it is. So, I didn’t vote. Should I vote? Probably. But I don’t know.
Were you ever worried that you were waiting too long to put out a new album? Cause now we’re in a time when it seems like people put out records every six months.
Yeah, but the fact that I didn’t put out a record every six months I think helped catapult me to another level, because I took my time. At first I wasn’t having fun making the record, cause it felt like work. But then the moment I started to have fun, to just make whatever I wanted to make, and have no rules — that’s when I had fun, and that’s when the records started to come out.
Rolling Stone called this record the reinvention of Denzel Curry. Is it a reinvention, or more of an evolution?
It’s actually an evolution, there’s no reinvention. I’m always Denzel Curry. My mother gave me the name Denzel Curry. There’s no reinvention, it’s all about evolving. Like for example, in the movie Fight Club there’s that time where Brad Pitt is talking about basically, growth. And he was like, “Man why are we spending our time trying to be perfect? Let’s just focus on evolving.” And I never thought anything made as much sense to me at that moment in my life. And so that’s why I would rather say, that it’s an evolution of Denzel Curry. Cause I’m not gonna just stick to my form right now. This is not even my final form.