How Denzel Curry grew from a SoundCloud giant to a legacy builder
THERE COMES A CERTAIN POINT IN AN ARTIST’S CAREER where the creative anxiety settles. Album-release schedules might start feeling more routine than anything, and the only thing that truly matters is the art. Not the outside noise, not the theatrics, but rather what that piece of themselves and insight into their lives — however they choose to package it — is going to say about the legacy they leave.
Denzel Curry is at this point. He’s been there for a minute. And his legacy speaks for itself.
“Usually I would be more anxious that it’s a few weeks away,” Curry tells Alternative Press of his fifth studio album, Melt My Eyez See Your Future. “But I feel like it’s about time I let this one go.”
It’s early March when the 27-year-old hip-hop trailblazer links with AP. He’s calling from Los Angeles — a long way from his early stomping grounds of Carol City, Florida — and he arrives a few minutes behind schedule, without any managers or publicists to first break the ice. He’s got other things to worry about than an introduction at this point in his career. But, for reasons that anyone who’s kept up with him over the past decade can understand, Curry is the least bit worried.
After four other albums — all critically acclaimed, all vastly different and all brutally authentic — the only thing he has left to prove with Melt My Eyez, he says, is how the hell he’s going to manage doing something totally new… again.
“My whole thing is to trick people,” Curry explains. “I’m not trying to give people the same thing every time. So even when you listen to this, everything has a theme. If people had the choice of making my music for me, they would make [2018 album] TA13OO 20,000 times. If they have the choice of making my music for me, they would make Imperial 50,000 times. They would do that over and over and over again. So that’s why I take it upon myself to switch every time. They’ll never know what to expect. My greatest attribute is being unpredictable. But it’s also very scary that I’m unpredictable because you never know what you’re gonna get.”
I’m not this angry person. I’m not a sad person. I’m not just one emotion. And I’m not one feeling. I’m just everything you get
What we get on Melt My Eyez is what Curry perfectly introduces on the first few words of opening track “Melt Session #1” as “a ride on my train of thought.” It’s a culmination of all the MC has felt since he toasted his hometown in 2019 with his previous LP, ZUU, as he embraces themes of hopelessness, the need to take accountability for one’s actions, and contemplations of the ills of the world, while experiencing the same pandemic times the rest of us have over the past two years.
Melt My Eyez is an album that can only come from the mind of Curry: a man who has spent a decade grinding from being a standout MC in the Los Angeles-based DIY hip-hop collective Raider Klan to one of the most unpredictable creatives in the game. As a forefather — if not the forefather, as some would argue — of SoundCloud rap, he still manages to put every ounce of his nerdy self on wax.
It’s all there on this one, from the manga series Fist Of The North Star samples to his affinity for martial arts and combat on full display in the album’s music videos, like in “Zatoichi,” to the way he geeks about the ’90s and ’00s classics that led him closer to his vision. As Curry says, this jazz-tweaked offbeat album, complete with some calmer flows and more ambitious features, is all him. Every part of him. And he doesn’t need to yell on it to get your attention. It’ll yell for itself.
“I’m not this angry person. I’m not a sad person. I’m not just one emotion. And I’m not just one feeling. I’m just everything you get,” he explains. “And I’m not this perfect person, just because I have the status of being famous. I’m human. At the end of the day, the main thing I took away from this whole thing, creating it, was the fact that I’m a person. I fuck up. I have emotions. And I’m not just this guy. This is me. When the whole mask of Denzel Curry, the rapper, the amazing performer, when the whole world shut down, there was none of that. It was just the human.”
DENZEL CURRY BECAME A HUMAN IN A CITY that left him with a lot to live up to as an aspiring MC. Carol City, located within Miami Gardens, had already been the home of Florida legend Rick Ross, but Curry was well ahead of himself as Ross experienced his come up in the ’00s, freestyling against his three brothers from the sixth grade onward and even keystyling — sending rapid-fire disses over Myspace against friends in his spare time. While Curry spent his first two years of high school at Miami’s Design And Architecture High School, his final two years found him removed from the art-school mindset and within Miami Carol City Senior High School, where hip-hop became his paintbrush instead.
“I was rapping about school, stuff I knew,” Curry recalls about the days before he took music seriously. “And I remember my homie — well, it was somebody in a class — I was trying to rap to him because he was related to [rapper] Brisco. And then this man made fun of me; this man was like, ‘You garbage. This man trying to rap to me about school. Just get away.’ I was so appalled, bro. I was like, ‘That’s fucked up. I’m trying to rap to somebody. Damn, he just called me out.’ So that just made me want to get better.”
Rapping about the things he knew and enjoyed is what helped glue his latest record, and those that predate it, together. But as a kid, Curry found himself incorporating anecdotes into his bars that weren’t necessarily reflective of his life at the time. There was a turning point when he started to see things for how they really were: when his cousin Chynaman was murdered, around the time he began running with Raider Klan (led by fellow internet hip-hop visionary SpaceGhostPurrp) at the dawn of the 2010s. Raider Klan, along with Los Angeles’ Odd Future, helmed by Tyler, The Creator, are looked at as two of the formative hip-hop collectives of the top of that decade. While it saw early material posted to music-sharing site DatPiff, shortly before Curry departed from the group in 2013, he launched his solo material, song by song, on SoundCloud.
“He was like, ‘Channel that pain,’ right? And he sent me one of these No Limit on instrumentals, and that’s how [song] ‘Creep Creep Devilz’ was made,” Curry recalls of those defining conversations with Purrp after Chynaman’s death. “After I did my first mixtape, you’re looking at the area that you in, and I’m going to Carol City, and things happen there. So it was a lot of stuff for me to talk about. I really couldn’t say anything when I was going to art school because it’s an art school; you kind of sheltered. But when you out, it’s so much shit… I was actually experiencing it firsthand.”
Curry’s career as an MC was launched while he was still in ELA classes, living a “double life” as a high school rapper. He took off with Raider Klan, released three solo mixtapes and eventually dropped his debut LP, Nostalgic 64, in 2013, all while going to classes and swearing he’d never have to take the LSAT a day in his life. Nostalgic was an underground success for the then-18-year-old, introducing the game to Curry’s affinity for cartoon samples in the form of The Grim Adventures Of Billy & Mandy and admiration for the classics, thanks to some Wu-Tang interpolations.
But it wasn’t until after Nostalgic when tragedy struck Curry’s family once more with the February 2014 death of his brother Treon Johnson at the hands of police in Hialeah, Florida. Curry’s brothers and older relatives meant a lot to him growing up, pushing him to rap and giving him something to look up to, but those around him in Carol City weren’t afforded the same success that he soon saw.
“One of my brothers was backyard fighting, and one of my brothers was in and out of jail. My other brother, me and him are close in age and shit,” Curry says. “And you know, we just stuck together. And then you got [one of my] cousins. He was in the streets, people trying to kill him and shit like that. But he was rapping with [Rick] Ross and all them boys. It was just the environment I was around. But I knew I wasn’t them.”
A self-described “nerd” like some of his personal favorite hip-hop influences (Pharrell, Kanye West), Curry admits that he was a bit much as a high schooler. He watched a lot of cartoons and anime and couldn’t really land a joke to get women’s attention. But as he channeled his personal pain and triumphs throughout his early material, one SoundCloud single at a time before launching into Nostalgic, he made sure the world knew just how nerdy he was with references to Mario characters on tracks such as “Denny Cascade” and even the Powerpuff Girls on “Zone 3.”
“You could be the most gangster gangster in the world, [but] you seen Dragon Ball Z,” Curry says. “You know what the fuck you’re talking about. You can’t go to a guy and still be like, ‘Hey, you know what Dragon Ball Z is?’ I’m pretty sure you can hear it in the lyrics today. The most gangster rappers, they gone make at least one reference to an anime. They watched it. I would say I was an [early adopter]. Me and my brother was on some Super Saiyan shit.”
The nerdy bars, complete with those moments of Carol City-realness, made Curry an early SoundCloud favorite, and a pioneer at that. But asked if he ever thinks back to the lengths he went to become one of the platform’s formative superstars, he says reflection is off the table nowadays. “What’s the point of bragging?” he says. “History is already there. It’s not like I’ll take down my SoundCloud anytime soon. And people could go back and just look at the shit. Like, my numbers was high as fuck on SoundCloud. I was [among] the highest people to ever do it before Lil Pump, [XXXTentacion], Ski [Mask The Slump God], and all these things started coming in. I was the man before them.”
Curry never stopped being the man as his career progressed. In 2016, he released his sophomore LP, Imperial, which followed the social media storm, and endless Vine usage, of explosive 2015 single “Ultimate.” Then came TA13OO — named by several publications as one of the best albums that year — and 2019’s ZUU, which he considered a toast to the city that raised him. He took a detour in 2020 with the Kenny Beats-backed Unlocked, and while he doesn’t consider it an album within his solo journey, it still allowed him to flex his collaborative muscles even outside of the Florida ties or Billie Eilish co-signs.
Signing to Loma Vista Recordings in 2016, instead of a major label, was imperative for Curry. While he could’ve easily continued on a trajectory of self-releasing, he wanted something concrete, and a team to back his vision. After watching an NWA documentary, he explains that something hip-hop mogul and Death Row Records icon Suge Knight said caught his attention. No matter how much money the major labels — which at the time were fighting over the unconventional MC — threw at him, he had to own his masters. Loma, with a history of backing artists such as Soundgarden, Iggy Pop, Korn and Manchester Orchestra, was the only label that promised him he could. And now, those past successes are all his. Nobody else’s.
“If I was assigned to a major-major, they would rush my art,” Curry says. “I probably wouldn’t be happy. I got problems. But not major-label problems. Owning your masters, it’s a harder road because you got to do everything from the ground up. I have a machine behind me, but it’s not like a corporate major-label machine, and then they’ll try to push you and persuade you to do things that are gonna make the money. And then if you don’t make the money back, you don’t improve, they shelve you.”
There’s no way to tell what would have happened to Curry had he signed to a major, but all that matters is he’s grateful for where he is on the day of our call; on the cusp of releasing a jazz-infused hip-hop project that, three years in the making, serves as his autobiography during the pandemic times.
MELT MY EYEZ BEGAN AS A VISION. It was a Notes app entry with the words “Denzel Curry Presents,” some samurai visuals and a lengthy title reminiscent of a few of the coolest long-ass titles in hip-hop history, as Curry says (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, To Pimp A Butterfly, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). He tried to make the album a few times over, or at least intended to, and at one point he even saw it as a trilogy. It was built on the idea of awareness, but as he got deeper into the weeds of creating, he decided he wanted to “melt away the perception of the person you think I am” with the songs he was crafting.
“My mindset was completely being human and letting go of just being the man,” he says. “Stop trying to please everybody, just stick to what I know or stick to what I like. I like a lot of stuff. But the main thing, it was getting into that mindset of just being relatable. And I don’t have to yell out everything. I didn’t have to force myself to [yell] on these records, and just learning more and more about myself when it came down to the writing process was what helped me write this.”
Recorded at FNZ Studio, Dot Da Genius’ The Brew, Electric Lady in New York and Kenny Beats’ famed creative space The Cave, Curry would ask everyone in the room working on the project to watch a Pitchfork short film about the Soulquarians: a collective of legendary Black musicians who helped define the sounds of the ’90s and early ’00s, from Erykah Badu to the Roots to J Dilla.
“I was literally studying the albums,” he says. “I was studying Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu, Things Fall Apart by the Roots, D’Angelo’s Voodoo. I nailed down all the substance for the album. When it came down to hits, on the other hand, I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t have nothing that people could just be like, ‘Oh, this is it.’’ I had to think about the album that I could relate to when it comes down to hits. And it was Kanye West’s Graduation.”
Influences aside, Melt My Eyez touches on some of the more formative experiences for Curry since he released ZUU, and admissions that he had to confront his own demons in the process. As he explains, the album includes plenty that he felt didn’t meet the requirements for his prior LPs.
One of the record’s more vulnerable lines covers the death of friend XXXTentacion, who looked to Curry as a mentor in his early years. On track “Angelz,” Curry raps, “I could either live like Jay or die like Jah/Hum do Allah/Let Jahova judge me on my flaws,” nodding to hip-hop heavyweight Jay-Z and his friend X, born Jahseh Onfroy, who was shot in Florida in June 2018 during an apparent car-side robbery. The line depicts Curry confronting his friend’s death, and “channeling the stuff that I was already feeling, that I didn’t get to say.”
“Me and Jah had a complicated relationship,” Curry says. “We will be close friends one day. Next thing you know, we at each other’s throats. He’ll try me in a magazine. I’ll try him on the internet. We’ll call each other, talk for three hours. Everything be squashed and shit. He’ll reach out to my friends. I’ll reach out to his friends. And we’ll talk again. We’ll talk about what’s bothering him, what was bothering me. And then when it came down to our very last conversation that we had, we got to a point where he was like, ‘We ain’t gonna try each other. No, man, I fuck with you. I just don’t like the shit you do.’”
“And his main thing was, we could finally come together and just do this shit. But before we even come together, he passed,” Curry says. “I didn’t know how much he really fucked with me until the funeral. His whole family, everybody in his family, was telling me, ‘Jah loved you, man. Jah would always talk about you. He said if it wasn’t for you, he’d still be trying to do this shit on his own.’ That shit hurt me because it was just like, I’d try to keep him out of trouble for all them years and keep him away from fucked-up people, you know? He was young.”
As Curry confronts on the LP, and the song in particular, “mistakes are mistakes,” but oftentimes, people get lost in calling bad choices “mistakes.”
“Those aren’t mistakes; they’re just choices. That’s why when I said the line, it was because it was a choice at the end of the day on how I want to live,” he shares. “You learn from the past, you learn different lessons from the past, but that’s what’s gonna help guide you to a better future… And when it comes down to my music, it is always something that I’ve learned from my past albums, with what worked and what did not work. Which got you to the direction of where you’re at, where you’re listening to Melt My Eyez. I’m pretty sure you didn’t skip none of that shit.”
CURRY IS RIGHT. SKIPPING THE ALBUM IS NEAR IMPOSSIBLE. Melt My Eyez is full of surprises, just as he intended, from a slick feature from Florida icon T-Pain to some love from Rico Nasty and JID to an entire song produced by modern-day funk disruptor Thundercat. Throughout his career, Curry has been almost bashful when it comes to asking other artists to join him on songs, he admits. He tries not to shoot too high, sometimes thinking other artists may not even know him, and usually sticks to those within his inner circle with whom he already has a personal, and creative, relationship.
But after sharing a Bonnaroo stage with T-Pain a few years back, Curry tossed a couple of tracks to the Rappa Ternt Singa, one being what he looks at as the album’s biggest potential hit in “Troubles.” Following some back and forth, and a few months of silence, Pain ended up messaging the verse Curry’s way like a buzzer-beater, which made his mom and brother excited for the new batch of material.
“I already had two verses on it. It was already ready to go,” he says. “They knew it was the hit before T-Pain got on that shit. And then when I was going to Muay Thai class, I get a text from T-Pain like, ‘Yo.’ I hit him back like, ‘Yo.’ Nothing, didn’t answer me back. The next day, I randomly get another text from T-Pain, and it’s a Dropbox folder. I was like, ‘What the fuck do you send me?’ I didn’t think he sent me a track. And then I play it, and it’s “Troubles.” His verse comes on. And I started jumping on my seat because I’m like, ‘Oh shit.’ It totally slipped my mind that he did that because it’s so far removed. He killed it.”
Other features on the record — Thundercat in particular — happened pretty casually. Curry and Cat were connected through Flying Lotus, and from there grew a friendship based around a shared love of anime and those nerdy traits that help fuel Curry’s music. Thundercat once even let Curry and his girlfriend crash at his crib during a fire drill, to catch up on some Naruto.
But creating “The Smell Of Death” was the result of Thundercat showing Zel some material he worked on for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning LP To Pimp A Butterfly, and toying around with a few other ideas he had in the vault. One idea featured a Fist Of The North Star sample. Needless to say, Curry was immediately sold.
“I just took all the shit that I like, and I had to put it in a way that was interesting,” he says of piecing Melt My Eyez together. “I didn’t make it super corny. I kept all the lyrics real. I kept everything real. But when you hear those beats, the beats was more important than the lyrics. Especially nowadays, people be like [mumbles], but that beat is knocking. The beat is what’s gonna hypnotize you. And that’s what I knew was important. So just blending all these influences. I knew they all had to be cohesive in a way, but different.”
Being different is part of what makes Curry so celebrated in hip-hop. When he isn’t putting his heart on wax, he’s sparring in between studio sessions at the Renzo Gracie Academy for martial arts — sometimes coming in and having to record a verse with a busted lip or bruised rib (“it hurt”) — or focusing his energy on creating a comic book series he intends to title Hell Trials. It’s still a work in progress, and he’s tapped his cousin and an entire team to bring it to life.
Building something larger outside of music, just like his insistence on owning his masters, is Curry’s way of ensuring his legacy continues even when the mic is turned off.
I know I’m not gonna be rapping like this at 50. So I want to be able to create something concrete for myself, my family and the generations going on
— DENZEL CURRY
“I’m trying to make more concrete things for myself because I know I’m not gonna be rapping like this at 50,” he says. “I’m not gonna be doing that shit. So I want to be able to create something concrete for myself, my family and the generations going on. Because I got mad kids in my family that are growing up right now. I want them to grow up on something, and then be a part of it later on — something like the Wayans.”
Melt My Eyez, which arrived March 25, is a culmination of the sounds and stories Curry has stockpiled over recent years and beyond. For those who’ve watched him grow from a SoundCloud giant who was “17 getting rich,” as he raps on “Ain’t No Way,” to the legacy builder that he is today, and even for those who are completely new to Curry’s craft, he hopes the album offers a feeling. He doesn’t care which one you feel with Melt My Eyez — as long as you feel something.
“I want people to feel it,” he says. “Because that’s the most important thing: feelings. Feelings are very important. That’s my main goal with this album, for people to feel. Doesn’t matter who you are. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Denzel Curry fan or not. I just want you to feel it.”
This cover story appeared in issue 405, available here or below.