Denzel Curry album guide: a look back on the first 10 years of his career
With Denzel Curry's first mixtape turning 10, we're looking back on the first decade of his career. One of his highlights, 2016's 'Imperial,' is now available on limited marbled zenith grey vinyl in the BrooklynVegan store. Pick it up alongside last year's 'UNLOCKED.'
Over the course of the past decade, Florida rapper Denzel Curry has become one of the most prolific and consistently great rappers around. With the exception of 2014, he's released at least one project a year since his 2011 debut mixtape, and since experiencing a mainstream breakthrough in the mid 2010s, he's only gotten better. He's also continued to grow and evolve as an artist. The Denzel Curry of 2021 does not sound like the Denzel Curry of 2015 which did not sound like the Denzel Curry of 2011. He first achieved recognition as a member of SpaceGhostPurrp's Raider Klan, who helped shape cloud rap in the early 2010s and also helped pioneer the sound and image that became known as SoundCloud rap. After the collective disbanded, Denzel continued to make a name for himself and continued to expand his sound. He often merges the worlds of rock and rap -- like with his covers of Rage Against the Machine and Bad Brains, tours with rock and punk bands, and the punk spirit that he brings to his live shows -- and he also merges different eras and styles of rap. Sometimes he throws it back to classic '90s rap, other times he recalls early 2000s alternative rap, and other times he's as modern as can be. He sounds as at home over futuristic synths as he does over organic jazz, and whatever style he's working with, he sounds wholly unique.
Denzel's first mixtape turns 10 this year, and it doesn't seem like Denzel will be slowing down anytime soon. He's been gaining popularity and new fans at every turn, and if you discovered him recently, it can be intimidating to realize he's also released so much music. For those wondering where to begin, we've broken down the first ten years of his career into the following album guide. It doesn't touch on every single thing he's released (between loosies, guest appearances, etc, we probably overlooked some gems), but we hope it'll be a good starting point for new fans, and maybe send some longtime listeners down memory lane.
Early Mixtapes (2011-2012)
Denzel first began making a name for himself as a member of SpaceGhostPurrp's now-defunct, many-membered Raider Klan, who emerged alongside other early 2010s internet-driven collectives like Odd Future and A$AP Mob. Their lo-fi, millennial twist on '90s Three 6 Mafia helped define the cloud rap subgenre that gained steam in that same era, and their hieroglyphics influenced the "X" and "V"-heavy aesthetic that remains prevalent in rap today. Their punk attitude and their usage of SoundCloud helped lay the groundwork for SoundCloud rap and emo rap, and though the group disbanded before they could achieve crossover fame, their impact changed mainstream rap forever. Between their image and their sound, they paved the way for future stars like Travis Scott, Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Peep, Lil Pump, and XXXTentaction.
As a member of Raider Klan, Denzel released three mixtapes: 2011's King Remembered Underground Tape 1991-1995 and 2012's King of the Mischievous South, Vol. 1 and Strictly 4 My R.V.I.D.X.R.Z. (plus the 2012 collaborative mixtape with Lofty305, Mental Vendetta). Like other Raider Klan members, Denzel -- who was just 16-17 years old at the time -- took a lot of influence from Three 6 Mafia with the murky, sometimes horrorcore-tinged music he put out in this era. These mixtapes are the most lo-fi, psychedelic projects he's ever released. The impact of these tapes is still felt today, and some fans swear by this era of Denzel Curry, but he's vastly improved as a rapper since then. Like a lot of young artists, he still sounds indebted to his own favorite records on these songs, but listening back to them today, you can hear the seeds being sewn for what he'd do in the future. They're full of moments of brilliance.
Nostalgic 64 (2013)
After Raider Klan split, Denzel released his first proper album, 2013's Nostalgic 64. It's a noticeable progression from the early tapes; still with some of his early psychedelia but much more clear-eyed and hard-hitting. On Nostalgic 64, Denzel began embracing the mosh-friendly shout-rap that would eventually turn him into a star, and the album included the first Denzel Curry song to really leave a mark outside of the rap underground: "Threatz." It's a big, loud, in-your-face Southern rap song and even all these years later, it feels like a timeless hit. It's the best song on Nostalgic 64, but it's not the only highlight. Denzel still sounds like he's finding his footing on this album, but it was obvious that he was on the cusp of something great, and he'd soon prove that to be true.
32 Zel/Planet Shrooms EP (2015)
2014 is the only year in the past decade that Denzel Curry didn't put an album/EP/mixtape out (though he stayed busy that year with a few guest verses), and when he returned with his first new project in 21 months, the 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms EP, Denzel had improved immensely. If "Threatz" found Denzel poking his head out from the underground, then 32 Zel single "Ultimate" found him diving headfirst into the mainstream. It's his first true breakout, and it remains one of his best and most-loved songs today. On that song, he fully perfected the loud, in-the-pocket shout-rapping that he's now best known for, and he sounded totally accessible without watering down his sound or tampering with his outsider mindset. It's 32 Zel's standout moment, but unlike "Threatz" did on Nostalgic 64, it doesn't overshadow the rest of the project. There are plenty of other show-stopping moments on 32 Zel, and the EP finds him working towards the multi-genre sound that would define his biggest albums, with a seamless blend of hardcore rap, trap, emo, R&B, and more. And even with 32 Zel containing the most polished production and accessible songs of any Denzel Curry project at that point, it was still overtly psychedelic and clearly an alternative to the radio-rap of that era.
"Ultimate" suggested that Denzel Curry had a bright career ahead of him and it was no fluke. Denzel returned the following year with his second full-length album, Imperial, and it found him harnessing the power of "Ultimate" for the length of an entire album. It also found him collaborating with bigger-name guests than ever -- Rick Ross and Joey Bada$$ -- and rivaling both of them. At this point, Imperial is probably Denzel's most underrated album, if only because he continued to get bigger and better afterwards. It's kind of his equivalent to Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 or Danny Brown's XXX, albums that proved those rappers were absolute forces to be reckoned with, but which were quickly overshadowed by the masterpieces that followed. Imperial doesn't have the cinematic ebb and flow of its followup, but it's just a great, hard-hitting rap record. At a fat-trimmed 10 songs, it's void of filler, and it almost never lets up on the fury. It's the moment that Denzel Curry fully arrived.
Pick up Imperial on limited-edition, marbled zenith grey vinyl in the BrooklynVegan store.
13 EP (2017)
The buzz that Imperial stirred up led to Denzel Curry inking a deal with Loma Vista Recordings, and before he released his first full-length album for Loma Vista, he dropped this short-but-sweet five-song EP. Similar to Imperial, it just functions as a showcase for how good of a rapper Denzel is, without the wide scope of the album that would follow, but even now that Denzel has entered modern rap's upper echelon, this EP holds up and serves as a quality snapshot of a turning point in his career. The songs are cut from a similar cloth as the Imperial songs, and tracks like "Hate Government" and "Equalizer" remained highlights of live sets into the TA13OO era.
For Denzel Curry's first big-label full-length album, he pulled out all the stops and came out with the most ambitious album of his career, TA13OO. The album is separated into three acts -- "Light," "Gray," and "Dark" -- and each act has its own distinct tone, but create something much grander when they're taken as one full piece of work. TA13OO gives you a taste of everything Denzel had done up until that point and more, with SoundCloud and punk/emo-friendly rap, trap bangers, soul-jazz hooks, boom bap era tongue-twisters, and more. SoundCloud rap is very much a singles game, and when I first heard this album, it felt to me like the first great capital-A Album to come out of SoundCloud rap. Now, that feels like an undersell. TA13OO transcends any particular rap subgenre, and it really doesn't sound like much else that's out there. It's just one of the best rap albums of its generation in general. (It's also now fun to think about how it includes guest vocals by Billie Eilish, shortly before she blew up and took Denzel on tour.)
If TA13OO was the big win, then ZUU was the victory lap. TA13OO felt like an album that was carefully (and successfully) constructed to be looked at as a classic, and once Denzel had a classic under his belt, he decided to do what he does best and remind the world that he's one of the most powerful rappers around. As more of a no-frills rap album, ZUU feels a little closer to Imperial than to TA13OO, but it's also clearly on another level than what he was doing on Imperial. Denzel had sharpened his skills so much by 2019 that basically everything he touched turned to gold, and the songs on ZUU are among his most memorable and accessible. To revisit the Kendrick Lamar comparison from earlier, if TA13OO is Denzel's good kid, m.A.A.d city, he kinda jumped straight to DAMN. with ZUU. In both cases, the albums may seem more simple on the surface, but they're full of some of each artist's biggest crowdpleasers. Denzel got a lot more popular with ZUU, and it's easy to see why, but he didn't cater to the mainstream to do so. He just leaned in to the most widely-appealing parts of his already-great sound and sharpened his skills in the process.
Denzel was on a clear forward trajectory with Imperial, TA13OO, and ZUU, and after ZUU, he made more of a left turn. That's not a bad thing; sometimes when you're at the top of your game, you need to shake things up, and Denzel did so successfully. UNLOCKED found Denzel working entirely with producer Kenny Beats, who shares Denzel's knack for approaching rap with a punk mentality (and sometimes making actual punk too), and together they made the most purely weird Denzel Curry project yet. From the Matt Doo homage of the album artwork to the voiceovers, references, cadences, and production, UNLOCKED feels like a love letter to the era of Def Jux-dominated alternative rap, but in a fresh, modern way that only Denzel and Kenny could do. It's the opposite of the fame-elevating ZUU; it feels like a gift to the weirdos who still love Denzel's underground days, without sounding like anything he'd ever made before.
Pick up a vinyl copy of UNLOCKED in the BrooklynVegan store.
UNLOCKED 1.5 (2021)
The year after UNLOCKED came out, Denzel and Kenny released a re-imagined version, UNLOCKED 1.5, which featured remixed/reworked instrumentals by Robert Glasper, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Charlie Heat, Sango, and Jay Versace and new verses by Joey Bada$$, Benny the Butcher, Smino, Arlo Parks, and Kenny Mason. It's an even weirder, even more genre-defying album than the original UNLOCKED, and it's much more than your average remix album. The source material may have been the original UNLOCKED songs, but it feels like an entirely new album of its own.