This image is from the official album artwork of Denzel Curry's TA13OO, owned by Loma Vista Recordings

Hip-hop and horror movies go hand-in-hand. Beyond the overt references (think Nicki Minaj’s allusion to “Child’s Play” and “Bride of Chucky” on “Monster” or Geto Boys name-dropping of Freddy Krueger on “Assassins”), both genres often toy with narratives of suffering and survival. On his 2018 album TA13OO, Denzel Curry crafts his own tale of horror: navigating the music industry as a young Black artist filled with promise and naivety. 

TA13OO, as its name would suggest, seeks to unpack the many taboo topics of Curry’s life — focusing on personal struggles with mental health and experiences of exploitation from business executives and audiences. Although these themes are at the forefront of Curry’s lyricism, the full picture of this industry manipulation is incomplete without paying mind to the album’s accompanying music videos. 

In the series’s first installment, “BLACK BALLOONS,” a businessman brandishes a pen and lengthy piece of paper in an effort to cajole Curry into signing a label contract. Above a current of sinister organ synths, the man affirms, “I can do anything for you Denzel, and all you’ve got to do for me is sign.” A reluctant Curry presents his signature and almost immediately is whisked into a world of luxury, parties and excess. Yet as the song progresses, Curry morphs from an attendee of these opulent parties to the source of entertainment. Here emerges the clown persona that Curry takes on throughout the remainder of the project, adorned in the same black and white face paint seen on the album’s cover. By the video’s end, Curry is sitting in a jail cell and far away from the gilded splendor that was promised to him in his early fame. 

In the following video, this time for the track “CLOUT COBAIN,” Curry becomes a full-fledged circus act. The record executive, and now ringmaster, unchains Curry from his handcuffs and taunts the rapper into performing for an aggressive crowd of white dudes with face tattoos and Styrofoam cups of lean. As he endures these jeers, Curry sings on the chorus, “I just want to feel myself, you want me to kill myself.” The video comes to its climax when an anguished Curry puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, much to the dismay of the demanding audience. “CLOUT COBAIN” is a clear example of the ways in which artists are pressured to sacrifice their own sanity in an effort to maintain a profitable and palatable image to fans. The SoundCloud rapper persona is satirized in the video’s predominately white audience, highlighting that from both a production and consumer standpoint, the genre is often reduced to appropriations of Black aesthetics. Curry falls victim to these pressures in the end, but all hope is not yet lost.  

In the album’s final video for the track “VENGEANCE,” Curry returns from the dead and seeks gory revenge on his tormentors. With the help of features JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami, Curry’s ghost rises from his bloodied body and sets out to find the record executive that sparked his downfall. The still-live businessman lays on an operation table as Curry and his friends dissect his insides with hooks and cleavers in a final act of redemption. The rapper has shed his harlequin makeup, fresh-faced and finally free from his oppressor. In the final shot, Curry rides away in a taxi to the sounds of soft guitar and trumpet swells. Sonically, there’s a shift from the brooding acidity of the rest of the track in these final seconds, perhaps a signal that Curry has reached some semblance of peace despite all he’s lost in the process. 

TA13OO is a candid chronicle of talented Black artists being plucked from obscurity and thrust into the music industry with very little creative freedom. What remains most frightening about Curry’s journey is not the gothic clown imagery or graphic violence, but his entrapment in the racist cycle of young artists forced to exchange their wellbeing for supposed wealth and clout. Yet despite these hardships, the existence of TA13OO alone is evidence that Curry has actively rebelled against the industry’s hidden horrors in a victorious display of autonomy.

Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at noralew@umich.edu.