Denzel Curry reshapes the SoundCloud-rap phenomenon on one of the year’s most ambitious albums

Denzel Curry

Denzel Curry Album art

“Eight years in the game and I never rode a wave,” raps Florida’s Denzel Curry at one point on his new album, TA13OO.

Though he was named a XXL Freshman just two years ago, Curry has been impacting rap a lot longer. Half a decade ago, when Curry was still in high school, he was emerging in a bubbling South Florida rap scene as a member of the ill-fated but enormously influential Raider Klan, scoring his first internet-level hit in 2013 with “Threatz.” He then released Nostalgic 64, one of my favorite albums of that year, and in 2015, he took his rapid-fire delivery to new extremes with the berserk “Ultimate,” helping him become a Freshman the following June. Along the way, Curry arguably godfathered the “SoundCloud rap” phenomenon, whose stars, many of them also from South Florida, emerged in his wake.

Now comes TA13OO (pronounced “taboo”), which sneakily ranks with this year’s most ambitious albums in any genre. Though not exactly a concept album, it has a distinct arc, divided into three parts of roughly equal length: Light, Gray, and Dark, released one day at a time last week. Curry has said in interviews that he actually made the album in reverse; while apparently dealing with depression, he recorded Dark first, thinking the rest of the album would sound similar, before finding himself in better headspaces that allowed to him to make more varied music. The album ends up being the best project yet by a lyrically and technically gifted young rapper who continues to push himself.

A more accurate title for Light would be Relatively Light , as it’s not a complete break from Curry’s established, bleak tendencies; “Welcome to the darker side of TA13OO,” he ironically begins opener “TABOO,” which goes on to include the line ” I heard you were molested when you hit the age of five.” That song, along with the next two, “BLACK BALLOONS” and “CASH MANIAC,” is some of the most melodic music of his career, while the more aggressive “SUMO” is a hyperbolic distillation of rap’s flashiness (“Pockets too big, they sumo!”), with Curry both mocking and reveling in tropes of the genre.

Gray is really the heart of the album. Curry told HotNewHipHop that Gray is intentionally the longest act (with five songs as opposed to the four of Light and the four of Dark), reflecting musical, personal, and political realities. “SWITCH IT UP” is its paranoid centerpiece, with Curry rapping about dichotomies (e.g., fans vs. haters) and remembering a friend pulling a gun on him, while the political “SIRENS,” featuring a standout verse from J. Cole protege J.I.D, mentions Trump and Trayvon Martin—a high school classmate of Curry’s.

Starting with the desolate keyboard tones of “THE BLACKEST BALLOON,” Dark plays like a downward spiral into anger and a toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing. On album highlight “PERCS,” Curry separates himself from face-tattooed, pill-gobbling mumble-rappers (“Get it straight, I innovate/ You ad-libs on a 808”), though he claims, “I don’t even try to hate/ I’m just saying what I ain’t.” The song’s production is relatively upbeat compared to the apocalyptic, distortion-heavy remainder of Dark, which is most extreme on “VENGEANCE,” featuring JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami.

Had the entire album been similarly blackened, as Curry initially thought it would be, it wouldn’t nearly have been the triumphant, idea-filled opus that it is. Curry has never released a weak project, but TA13OO is an especially triumphant coalescence of his conceptual songwriting and inventive technique. “They only know Denzel Curry, but they really don’t know Denzel/ Everybody wanna ride waves and jump when the ship don’t sail,” he raps on “SWITCH IT UP.” More than anything else he’s released so far, TA13OO thoroughly presents Curry as both a rap hero and a real-life human, and why he deserves to be a leader of the new school.