In the chaotic arena that is SoundCloud rap, Denzel Curry has etched out his own distinct realm. Presumably he doesn’t mind being tagged as a SoundCloud rapper, as murky and hard to define as that term is. It was just in May that Curry went to the mattresses to uphold his version of the genre’s history, using Twitter and interviews to torpedo Smokepurpp’s claim to have fathered the movement. “You Spelled RVIDXR KLVN Wrong,” Curry responded to a Complex tweet quoting Smokepurpp’s claim to have “birthed” the genre. (RVIDXR KLVN, for the uninitiated, is the collective formed and led by Spaceghostpurrp—no relation to Smoke—that Curry was once a member of.) The scramble to write the narrative of this odd corner of the internet is on, and it turns out hip-hop is no better at policing online than governments or large-scale social media platforms.
Smokepurpp, Ski Mask the Slump God, XXXTentacion; South Florida has been a colony of a style of rap that is at once extremely cursed, wrought of iron, played to the bone. SoundCloud rap as a genre—as opposed to rap music posted to SoundCloud—usually means scuzzy production, punchy bars, hooky choruses, anarchic shock tactics, and, more often than not, deeply troubled stars. Curry—straight out of Carol City, Miami Gardens—can tune his voice to a manic setting, spitting on devastating beats that sound just two degrees short of blasting out speakers. But he brings a level of emotional resonance and elegance to his writing that isn’t typically associated with the form. Curry’s music ripples with the kind of pain that liquifies the heart and chills the soul. The cover of his third full-length, TA1300 (which, for some reason, is “Taboo,” stylized) features Curry in menacing face paint, looking like he’s about to commit a heist in Dead Presidents or hunt humans in The Purge. But this is a 23-year-old kid who a few years ago hit the road in the aftermath of dealing with his brother’s death. He understands the need for masks.
Everything impressive about Curry’s burgeoning artistry is distilled into the song “Taboo.” Detailing his relationship with a young woman who grew up suffering horrible abuse, the rapper lays out the emotional distance that needs to be bridged between two damaged people. In his fractured state, Curry offers a shoulder to cry on, a partner to pray with, and unconvincingly plays with the idea of sex as a healer. Over bluesy guitar plucks, he veers from forceful rapping to soulful singing, showcasing a voice capable of conveying the full gamut of sentiment, while the vocal effects placed at the end of bars suggests the erosion of his spirit. And he positions this song as track number one! As a table setter, that’s a bold move.
The first third has the most surprises. Curry describes the album as being split into three sections: the light, the gray, and the dark side, though there isn’t a whole lot of brightness to the opening segment. Finatik N Zac’s production on “Black Balloons” might bounce like the kind of mid-1990s rap hit that would have gotten plenty of MTV rotation, but Curry spends his verse pondering suicide (“Soon black balloons pop/That’ll be the day the pain stops.”) The song plays as a reminder that pain often bubbles beneath a veneer of extraversion—the tears of a clown are often the most acidic. It’s a theme he frequently returns to. Take “Clout Cobain,” from the gray section: a reminder that Kurt resonates with kids too young to have copped In Utero first time around.
Away from the tracks with heavier themes, the battering “Sumo” fully immerses in SoundCloud rap’s core tenets, with Curry’s shit-talking one-liners extremely on point: Saying you’ve got pockets like a sumo is the hilarious long way round to describing the size of your money clip. Curry also finds a synonym for “bricks” in Shaq’s free throws before name-dropping wrestler Rikishi. “Sumo” even makes a sample of Lil Jon’s yells of “WHAT!” sound fresh 14 years after Dave Chappelle made it uncool.
Some ears will never adjust to songs like “Sumo” or the noisy, head-banging number “Black Metal Terrorist.” The dissonance of these tracks owes a debt to rap metal, Aphex Twin, and Yeezus, in no particular order. On top of the chaos, Curry’s voice is clean and youthful, carrying the kind of power once deployed by a 16-year-old Chief Keef. It’s the menace of guys who are young, dumb, and with precisely zero scruples.
There are moments when Curry’s dedication to the album’s core strengths slides away. On “Sirens,” the switch between fiery rapping and clean pop hook doesn’t quite mesh with the beat, making it a rare moment when his vocal instincts fail. It’s an all-in socially engaged number featuring, among other things, some stray shots fired at serpent-in-chief Donald Trump, which, though undoubtedly unfeigned, feels a little perfunctory in a world where rap music is frequently providing the most trenchant critiques of Trump’s America.
It’s when he sticks to the highly personal that Curry’s music is devoid of all cliché—the power of his performance, the veracity of his pen, and the color of his wordplay make him an expert at voicing the tribulations of this doomed condition we call being young. All of this makes him impossible to place in the broader SoundCloud rap domain. Signs point to an artist who will outlast any single distribution platform—or any of the genres named for them.