Rap’s current state of affairs is puzzling, to say the least. Juggernauts like Drake, A$AP Rocky and J. Cole have put out some of the most stagnant music of their careers and have plateaued artistically. Pusha T appears to be the last of rap’s old guard who can drop a quality album. Female rappers like Cardi B and CupcakKe are blazing a much-needed trail critically and commercially. We finally got the Kid Cudi/Kanye West collab which would’ve blown our minds eight years ago, only released to much less fanfare; Cudi shines having confronted his struggles and addictions, while Kanye, to put it lightly, is taking crazy pills. Another burgeoning, mumbling, problematic superstar in XXXTentacion was murdered in broad daylight, but the public can’t immediately decide if that was a good or a bad thing.
While all this is going on, while Chief Keef is hunting 6ix9ine down on a cross-country beef, while rappers like Lil Pump and Trippie Redd are becoming the new norm, Denzel Curry sat perched, watching over this baffling bizarro world like a stone gargoyle. And with his latest full length TA13OO, he swooped in, with ghoulish demeanor and the precision of a silver stake piercing Dracula’s heart.
Critics are often quick to lump Denzel Curry into the ambiguous realm of SoundCloud rap. Although Curry is of the same DNA as fellow South Florida denizens like Smokepurpp and Ski Mask the Slump God, if anything, he’s the growing genre’s Grim Reaper. Here to take names and collect souls, Curry has made himself known for being as sharp as a swinging scythe and hard as steel. Even if you’ve never heard of him, there’s a chance you’ve heard of his insanely high energy ditty “Ultimate” (most likely as the viral soundtrack to a handful of Vines in the platform’s last days).
On the mic, Denzel raps like a man possessed, with many a heart-pounding beat to back him up. His 2016 release Imperial managed to sustain the same verve of “Ultimate” for 40 minutes, so when he announced TA13OO last year (backed up by 13, a five-track EP of demos), his fanbase was rightly scared. The proper genre to describe Curry’s output is “music that makes you want to commit large-scale arson and/or tax fraud.” Another hour of hard-hitting insanity would be sure to start a real-life version of “The Purge.”
Yet while most of his previous work was turbulent, pedal-to-the-metal momentum, TA13OO is smart to control its acceleration, starting at zero and gradually building up speed to get to 100. Split up into three “acts” of four to five songs each — Light, Gray and Dark — there is a flow of tone that revitalizes and re-energizes Denzel and keeps the album consistently sounding fresh. Even straight-up bangers can get repetitive sometimes.
Opening track “TABOO” is an oddly ethereal and bluesy way to rope the listener in; Denzel is uncharacteristically soulful, singing his way through emotional damage and trauma and functioning as a spirit guide who’s warning us of the path ahead. “BLACK BALLOONS” and “CASH MANIAC” are refreshing quasi-summer grooves, smooth as the GoldLink feature on the former but peppered with talk of suicide and drowning in excess. But just when you thought Denzel was going soft on you, he ends Act One with “SUMO” and the real madness of TA13OO begins.
“SUMO,” alongside Act Three cut “PERCS,” follow the same formula that the Zeltron perfected on “Ultimate”: Ten or so seconds of a neutered version of the main beat that puts you into the same scramble that sirens forewarning the coming of a natural disaster would, then a perfect storm of trenchant bars and unstoppable flow. The rest of the album sustains this brand of aggression, but Denzel Curry finds new ways to innovate and harness his raw power.
“SUPER SAIYAN SUPERMAN” is a detached two-minute sprint; imagine Denzel’s eyes rolling into the back of his head “Exorcist”-style when he was recording that in the booth. “SIRENS” and “VENGEANCE” excellently incorporate the style of its guest rappers in J.I.D and JPEGMAFIA, respectively. Curry showcases his technically ability and impressively varies his cadence and delivery on the aptly-named “SWITCH IT UP.”
TA13OO never strays far from its carnival horror ride concept, which manages to ground its seemingly unrestrained zeal. Without proper explanation, the tracks are stylized in all caps then followed by a numerical spelling (“THE BLACKEST BALLOON” becomes “THE 13LACKEZT 13ALLOON,” for example). There is also an unholy reverence to the number 13, which Curry previously described as “something to be afraid of worldwide, the part of an unfortunate distorted life.” This twisted triskaidekaphobia, along with the embracing of the melancholy, paranoia and dark subject matter that frame the album, seems to be an unorthodox way of confronting fear. Denzel’s method of diminishing terror is allowing himself to mosh alongside it.
The sinister themes like hatred, revenge and near-death experiences that haunt TA13OO’s halls only grow more frightening as the album approaches its fiery conclusion. The end of “VENGEANCE” followed by first few seconds of “BLACK METAL TERRORIST” is a welcome little breather from the nonstop vehemence, but if someone like Denzel gives you a rest, you best know something potent is around the corner and approaching fast. “BLACK METAL TERRORIST” is the result of a fusion dance between “Ultimate” and “SUMO” and quite frankly the hardest fucking song you’ve heard all year. “I am the mark of the beast,” screams Curry, who moves “tortuously, killin’ [his] infidels effortlessly.”
While he certainly goes for the throat of his competition on songs like “BLACK METAL TERRORIST,” Denzel has a concerned message for his troubled contemporaries on Act Two closer “CLOUT COBAIN.” Its accompanying video plays out like the nightmare you would have after watching “It” with the sound off and “Gucci Gang” on repeat in the background. From the title and simple lyrics, one would think this is yet another entry in the catalog of rap songs glamorizing the Nirvana frontman’s suicide for a shitty metaphor. However, Curry’s intent is subversive; the refrain “I just wanna feel myself, you want me to kill myself” and the visuals are both a criticism of the new class of rappers and a call to action.
In the video, Denzel is paraded around a mad circus, waving guns around much to the amusement of the lean-sipping crowd. The intentionally gothic scenes play out like satire; in reality, these circusgoers are not far from the fans who bounce along to the Lils and other clout chasers, the confused voices of a confused generation. They’re swimming in excess and Xanax, and while Curry doesn’t support this, he still cares about their well-being. He doesn’t want them to drown.
On TA13OO, Denzel Curry plays the gruff Batman to the mumble rapper’s Joker. Sure, he wants to exterminate his competition and leave them within inches of lyrical death, but he knows they both need each other to thrive. Their paths may intertwine, but Denzel is ultimately carving out his own lane in this new battlefield of rap. He just wants you to know two things: He doesn’t fuck with the percs, and he certainly doesn’t fuck with you.