The Metamorphosis of a Rapper

How Miami emcee Denzel Curry spent the better part of 2015 working on himself.

For most of 2015, mum was the word for Miami rapper Denzel Curry. The 21-year-old emcee kept a low profile, only emerging once in June to release the double EP, 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms. Fans took notice of his absence, wondering what had happened to the ambitious young artist who has been churning out a steady stream of music since the age of 16. Had he retired from the music industry? Or was he taking a break?

The answer: neither. Instead, he was plotting his transformation.

Curry’s decision to tweak his image and sound came after a conversation he had with André 3000 — “my idol,” he says — at an art gallery in the Wynwood District of Miami at the tail end of 2014.

“I knew that if I was going to ask him something, I wasn’t just going to ask for a picture,” Curry says. “I was going to ask him something that was going to change my life, and really, that’s what happened.”

He ended up asking André 3000 a few questions, like “What do you do to stay relevant?” and “What keeps you going?” The former OutKast member’s answers were startlingly simple — “He was like, ‘Just don’t get bored. That’s how you succeed and have fun,’ ” Curry says — but it was enough to jumpstart the younger rapper’s ambitions to modify things in his own life and make the mundane less mundane.

The first change Curry made was swapping his Twitter handle from Denzel A.K. (“Aquarius Killer”) Curry, which he’d been using for years, to ULT (as in “ultimate”) Denzel Curry. Next, he changed his hair, growing out his short, spiky dreads and combining them into fat, sausage-shaped locks.

“It’s a liberating type of statement,” Curry says of his new ‘do. “It’s showing everyone that I’m evolving in both my look and musically.”

Curry then spent the remainder of 2015 internalizing André 3000’s advice and plotting his next moves, because if there was one thing Curry was intent on doing, it was making 2016 his bitch. Which he did.

In less than a year, Curry has made leaps and bounds as an artist, nailing commercials with Adidas, booking Google-sponsored shows in Europe, and landing collaborations with some of the biggest names in electronic music, including Flying Lotus, Diplo, and Skrillex. After three years in the making, he released his second studio album, Imperial, in March, which has a track with a verse from easily the biggest artist Curry has ever worked with: Rick Ross. In the summer, he landed a coveted spot in XXL Magazine‘s 2016 freshman class, alongside trendier rappers like Lil Yachty and Desiigner. Curry also took all of his previous music off of Spotify so that it could get remastered, and his shenanigans, like his online feud with fellow Miami rapper SpaceGhostPurrp and his tumble through the ceiling of the girl’s bathroom at a venue in Tennessee, also started making headlines. Curry even managed to turn “ultimate” into a buzzword, one that has more to do with “a movement” about “going your hardest” than it does with frisbees.

But perhaps the biggest thing he changed about himself was his outlook. Namely, not giving a fuck about what other people think of his music.

“Fans don’t know what they want,” he says. “Fans are like, ‘Oh, I want the stuff that you did in the last album because I really liked it, and if you don’t do that, I’m not going to be your fan no more.’ Or they’ll be like, ‘I didn’t like that project. He doesn’t sound like him on it,’ or ‘You’re wack. You’re mainstream now.’ And you know what? Fuck you then. I don’t give a fuck. If that’s how you feel, you were never a fan in the first place.”

If Curry sounds aggressive, it’s because he is — both in his music and in real life. Put a camera in his face and ask him for a photo, and he’ll swat it away. Give him an eerie, synth-punctuated beat, and he’ll rap about how he doesn’t “take kindly to threats.” Listen to the opening track on Imperial, and within the first few seconds, you’ll hear him talk about his “wrath” and brag about being “the black metal terrorist.” The cover art on many of his projects also depicts macabre and sinister images, like guns, swords, and skulls. It’s clear that Curry revels in dark subject matter, and over the course of his career — which includes two albums, one EP, and four mixtapes — little has changed in that regard.

But other things have, namely the production quality of his music and his musical affiliations. His earlier stuff, which was recorded in DIY home studios, some of which were built into closets, is murky and hazy in a low-budget way. Curry readily admits that “of course, it’s shitty,” but defends his nascent work as “still hard” despite the low quality.

Curry also used to be a member of RVIDXR KLVN (pronounced “Raider Klan”), a hip-hop collective founded by SpaceGhostPurrp that counts rappers from all over the country as members, although its numbers have dwindled since 2012, around which time Curry also left the crew.

But Curry is far from friendless and still maintains close ties with many of the original artists he collaborated and worked with back in Miami, like the members of Metro Zu and Twelve’len, as well as the brothers R3LL and N3LL. In fact, the cover art for Imperial is a black-and-white photo that includes many of Curry’s old friends, as well as some of the aforementioned artists.

“People think I’m ‘Hollywood’ and shit, and I’m really not,” he says. “I actually like chilling with people. I like being regular. I’m a regular fucking human.”

Denzel Curry plays at 8 p.m., on Sunday, Nov. 13, at the New Parish in Oakland. $18; thenewparish.com

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