Does death stalk the life of Denzel Curry? It's a lurid thought to attach to an energetic 24-year-old who has come up from the South Florida SoundCloud rap underworld and can now reasonably be described as a hip-hop leading man. But as Curry's career has continued its unbroken upward trajectory, he has been forced to watch others fall.
The Carol City native is part of a rising generation of rappers that has already suffered heavy losses. Drug abuse claimed the lives of Lil Peep and Mac Miller. The death of the problematic XXXTentacion — fatally shot in 2018 in Deerfield Beach — inspired Curry's song "Speedboat" and a promise to himself: "My dawg didn't make it to 21, so I gotta make it past 24."
The most recent addition to the list is Juice Wrld, who died this past December after suffering a seizure likely induced by substance intoxication. Onstage the day after Juice died, Curry called for a moment of silence in memory of his fallen comrade and then concluded the tribute with the assertion: "On a real note, if somebody is going through something, man, make sure you check on them."
Speaking about Juice during an early-January phone interview, the man who answered the call in a buoyant mood, gleefully singing stray notes down the handset, shifts into a soft and reverent tone.
"Me and Juice weren't close, but we were associates. We knew each other; we had respect for each other; we seen each other at multiple festivals and through DJ Scheme. Scheme is one of my close friends — I would often see Juice with him," Curry says. "There was respect there. There was never no disrespect from either of us. When he passed away, it was only right [that I paid tribute to him], because I had respect for that man."
Watching colleagues die hasn't crushed Curry's spirit, but it has taught him life lessons he can describe with precision. "You just gotta go on, because tomorrow ain't promised, for real," he says. "I would just say, 'Live your life, but be mindful with what you do with your life.'"
"You just gotta go on, because tomorrow ain't promised, for real. Live your life, but be mindful with what you do with your life."
Mortality may well be on Curry's mind on February 29, when he hits the Magic City Innovation District for one of his Zeltron World Wide shows. The high-concept performance series was inspired by Curry's late brother, Treon Johnson. A bare-knuckle brawler, Johnson had been due to appear in the documentary Dawg Fight when he died in February 2014, hours after being tasered, pepper-sprayed, and taken into custody by Hialeah police.
Johnson's passion for one-on-one combat lives on in Zeltron World Wide. The show features a five-round bout between MCs that's part battle rap, part professional wrestling as artists step into the ring and go head-to-head to assert their on-the-mike supremacy. On paper, it appears to be your typical 8 Mile face-off, but Zeltron World Wide (Zeltron being one of Curry's noms de plume) brings a level of pageantry not always associated with battle rap. Past lineups have even included pro wrestlers squaring off on the undercard before the main event commences.
"You got to think about it, man: Boxing and fighting, martial arts, everything — it's all based on styles and techniques and stuff like that," says Curry, who cites Roy Jones Jr. as his favorite pugilist of all time.
"Rapping and making music is all based on styles and techniques — lyrical ability, what kind of abilities you have, what can you do, versatility. Martial arts, wrestling — everything goes hand-in-hand with that. A lot of wrestlers got styles. A lot of them come in witty styles and have their own set of moves and stuff like that. That's versatility itself. When it comes to this, rap is a sport if you're coming down to just going against each other. It's a sport also. It's a battle of words, a battle of rhymes, a battle of rhythms."
Curry's opponent at Magic City? East Atlanta's J.I.D. "He wanted to agree to someone who was of his caliber," Curry explains. "So I was just like, 'Fuck it, I'll stand in that line of fire.'"
Returning to Miami for the show brings Curry back to a city he's becoming synonymous with. He emerged as a member of Raider Klan, a collective led by SpaceGhostPurrp that traded in the battering sounds of SoundCloud rap, a blood-raw strand of hardcore hip-hop largely pioneered in South Florida that takes its name from its creators' preferred online platform. But over the past few years, Curry has evolved his methodology into something more cerebral, and more multifaceted.
Released last summer, ZUU is a quintessential Miami record that works in booty bass, Southern rap, and the oeuvre of Carol City's own Rick Ross. (The cover even pays homage to '90s Miami rap group Poison Clan.) From one of the most pop-cultured cities on the planet, Curry has given the world a fresh perspective.
"The main thing they know is South Beach. They don't know the side that we grew up on," he says of outsiders who think they've seen the whole city through the portal of their TV screens. "They don't know North Miami side or, like, Kendall, all those sides — Hialeah, places like that. They only know South Beach, Bad Boys, or whatever they show you on Miami Vice. So that's what they automatically assume it is. But they've got a lot of culture in these."
"Rap is a sport if you're coming down to just going against each other. It's a battle of words, a battle of rhymes, a battle of rhythms."
He continues, "You've got Dade County, you've got Broward County— which is not Miami — and you've got Palm Beach County. So you've got to get those right because most people think all of Broward is Miami. No: Miami and Broward are two separate things."
Curry reserves particular disdain for those who misrepresent his hometown, the Miami Gardens neighborhood Carol City. "Most people think it's part of Broward County, and it's not. It's Dade County as fuck! It's just the last borough in Dade before you get to Broward."
ZUU includes the single "Ricky," an ode to Curry's father. Here, the rapper remembers the lessons once burrowed into his brain ("Trust no man but your brothers") and turns them into a rare rap dedication to dads that was certainly one of last year's best rap singles. "I put it out there just according to how I feel and what people will relate to," he explains. "When I made 'Ricky,' there's a lot of kids who have fathers and a lot of kids who don't, so I wanted to share my experience of me having a father."
Constantly traversing a stylistic gamut, Curry has lent himself well to other projects. His 2019 collaboration list covered stylistically diverse bases from L.A. beat scene beatnik Flying Lotus ("Black Balloons Reprise"), soul singer Anna Wise ("Count My Blessings"), and British psych band Glass Animals ("Tokyo Drifting"). Yet Curry is blasé about his genre-hopping.
"Music is just music. I just go on there and do my thing; I do what I'm really good at. But I grew up on a lot of music, so that means I should be able to do a lot of music," he says. "I've been a fan of FlyLo since listening to him on Adult Swim when I was a child — just trying to watch Cowboy Bebop and stuff like that. So working with him is like working with one of my favorite producers of all time."
"When I made 'Ricky,' there's a lot of kids who have fathers and a lot of kids who don't, so I wanted to share my experience of me having a father."
January 7 saw Curry enter the new year with a thump, unexpectedly dropping 13LOOD IN + 13LOOD OUT. Interestingly, the story behind the 14-minute micro-project was almost the reverse of the norm. In November 2018, Curry tweeted out a picture of a blood moon with the caption 13LOOD IN + 13LOOD OUT. He claims it was an off-the-cuff post without much thought put into it. "It was just a phase I was going through at the time," Curry says of his fondness for blood moons. But fans began speculating that the caption was the announcement of a new record. So Curry decided to tailor a release to sync to that impulsive image.
The result is a hard-moshing eight tracks that tempt the hip-hop star back to the chaos and scuzziness of his SoundCloud beginnings while working in Kanye West Yeezus-era orchestration — hear how "Gogeta" shares DNA with Ye's "New Slaves." Affirming its links to Curry's roots, "Welcome to the Future" even reunites the rapper with his former Raider Klan ally Xavier Wulf.
"Me and him had a whole rift," Curry says. "We kind of got over it, squashed it — everything was good. I invited him to the studio so we could make some more shit. I was just curious about how it would sound if me and him did songs together now and the chemistry was actually there. It was like, 'Damn, we make fire shit together still!'"
As 13LOOD IN + 13LOOD OUT brings Curry back to his sonic roots, his next show brings him back to Miami with a concept he developed years ago. It all reads as very full-circle, and that's probably deliberate. This is an inevitable homecoming. "I had to make ZUU because I was getting homesick," Curry admits, "and I didn't get the chance to really stay and enjoy the city like how I am now."
Red Bull Zeltron World Wide. With Denzel Curry and J.I.D. 7 p.m. to midnight Saturday, February 29, in the Magic City Innovation District, 6301 NE Fourth Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $15 to $25 via redbull.com.