Denzel Curry's "TA13OO" is a three-act triumph.
It would ill-behoove you to dub Denzel Curry a “SoundCloud rapper.” It may be tempting, given his relative youth, Floridian origin, and affinity for noisy, distorted production. Yet those familiar with his seminal work Nostalgic 64 know that Curry has always been a cut above his contemporaries. Technically elite, with an encyclopedic knowledge of bookish references, Curry’s creative mind has always been his dominant selling point. It’s no surprise that TA13OO was ultimately structured in three acts, imbuing the project with an inherently theatrical quality. Such a concept may be lost on those seeking instant gratification, yet Denzel Curry has worked tirelessly to amass a loyal band of followers.
The end result is Curry’s most focused album to date, with stellar performances across all leading categories, including the production. Those coming seeking a spiritual successor to Imperial may be caught off guard; the opening chords of the introductory title track feel more evocative of vintage Outkast, with a soulful drip and twinkling guitar work. Interestingly enough, “Taboo” marks the onset of the Light chapter, described by the man himself as an affirmation of optimism. Yet “Taboo” begins a pattern of dark thematic content lurking beneath a shimmering musical veneer; the same holds true of “Black Balloons,” with references to suicidal thoughts and macabre figure Pennywise floating over a disco-era blammer. Is the juxtaposition foreshadowing of an inevitable descent, or merely reinforcement that circumstances can only improve upon misery?
Structurally, Denzel’s divisions suggest three disparate narratives - at least, on the surface. Yet hearing the album unfold is reminiscent of a color spectrum, in which hues progressively darken. Consider our beginning chapter, “Taboo,” and our ending, the hostile “Black Metal Terrorist,” which caps off the final Dark chapter. If viewed in a linear sense, the journey plays out like a descent into madness, in which our protagonist gives in to his darker impulses. Does that mean the nightmarish soundscapes of “The Blackest Balloon” cancel out the playful celebration of “Cash Maniac?” Unlikely. The entire project encapsulates the layered portrait of Denzel Curry as an artist; moving along the narrative does not overwrite previous chapters, nor does it contextualize them.
It’s easy to get carried away in structural analysis, especially given the loaded symbolism behind Light, Gray, and Dark. Yet everything fails if the music falls flat. Luckily, Denzel has poured himself into TA13OO, putting the full scope of his artistry on display. Where many young rappers can be traced on a genealogical family tree of influencers, Denzel feels entirely original. He can convincingly take to a synth-driven G-Funk instrumental, while readying himself for an 8-bit percussive mosh-pit serving. Disciples of “Ultimate” may no doubt favor his more aggressive takes, yet the versatility bodes well for those seeking longevity. It may be premature to label him alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar, but remember, Kenny was twenty-four when he dropped Section Eighty. Denzel is twenty three.
One of TA13OO’s many strengths come from Curry’s vocal mastery; that’s not to say his technical ability, but more specifically, his control of cadence. Like Eminem before him, Denzel Curry has adapted alter-egos, each representing differing elements of his character. As a result, the man can switch from a devil-may-care swagger to a sinister Tales From The Crypt-stylegrowl. His dynamic vocal range is perhaps best evidenced on low-key standout “Switch It Up,” which feature one of the best flow moments in a minute, as Curry effortlessly rhymes “blame this for the pain in Florida” like the goddamn Cat In The Hat. “Sirens” is another beast altogether, pairing Denzel with another one of hip-hop’s future mainstays, J.I.D. During an interview with Zane Lowe, Curry cited the Dreamville lyricist as the only rapper to ever make him rewrite a verse. Such healthy competition leaps from the speakers, and as both parties weave effortlessly over the instrumental, it feels clear that the game is in capable hands.
While Gray makes up the bulk of the album, purists will ultimately find themselves concluding the journey on Dark. Welcomed by the appropriately “horror-movie” vibe of “The Blackest Balloon,” Denzel takes to the instrumental with a sharp insight on the pitfalls of fame; it’s no wonder this one follows “Clout Cobain,” as Curry hits his contemporaries with a scathing critique. “Ain't shit changed since Lil Peep died,” he raps, evoking imagery of proud “drug addicts” like Lil Pump, Lil Xan, and the notorious Boonk. Of course, such commentary can occasionally feel like elitism; rappers like Russ have been met with the guillotine for daring to wade into the discourse. Yet Denzel feels entrenched in the culture, given his proximity to quote-unquote SoundCloud rap, and pivotal role in shaping Floridian up-and-comers at the ULT house.
TA13OO feels like a breakout for Denzel, whose unique status as a young veteran combines a young artist’s hunger with an older head’s poise. While conceptually more abstract than Sticky Fingaz' Black Trash or Kendrick Lamar’s good kid mAAd City’s focused narratives, the album’s thematic ambiguity enhances the experience, inviting a variety of different interpretations. Plus, it’s quite simply a musical treat, never once daring to overstay its welcome. It's safe to say that the bar has been raised. And not simply for his generational peers. Denzel Curry has arrived, and to quote the man himself: it feels like a horror movie.