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“We Wanted to Be Better Than Atlanta”

Denzel Curry is at the forefront of the “trippy, psychedelic, crazy sh*t” that has turned South Florida rap into a movement. Here’s how he got here.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Florida is a famously strange land populated by sensational weirdos, and now they’ve all taken over hip-hop. Denzel Curry is as surprised as you are, and twice as delighted. The 22-year-old rapper — who graced XXL’s coveted Freshman Class cover last year — released his latest EP, titled 13, on Monday. The project is short, just five tracks, a mix of songs initially recorded years ago but only recently finished; and a couple of newer tracks, such as “Heartless,” which — I shit you not — is the closest I’ve ever heard a rapper come to singing opera. (Curry describes his “Heartless” performance as “a different flow,” which is him underselling full-on rapper mezzo by a lot.)

As brief as the EP is, 13 is a bit of a breather for Curry, who has spent the past six years making chaotic albums and mixtapes full of new-school adolescent rage. Curry raps in a rapid staccato that wavers between pouting and true rage, over bleak, brutal, obliterative trap booms and 32-bit-era video game bloops. Much of Curry’s music sounds like Ras Kass meeting the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. In the past year, such young and trippy vengeance has become hip-hop’s sound du jour, and Curry’s formative example has shaped the genre’s thrilling and rather unexpected punk rock moment.

Since drill music’s tumultuous insurgency in 2012, this is the first time in several years that a new musical movement has countermanded Atlanta’s long dominance of hip-hop culture in the 21st century. Having spawned 15 years’ worth of mainstream musical trends — from ghetto funk, to crunk, to snap, to trap — Atlanta hip-hop may indeed be running up against a musical dead end as trap music has spread and thinned itself into watery ubiquity, much as the stagnation of sample-heavy, East Coast gangsta rap spelled New York’s downfall as hip-hop’s capital in the mid-2000s. “Everybody’s seen what Atlanta can do,” Curry says. “We wanted to be better than Atlanta. Nothing against Atlanta, though. I love Atlanta. My favorite rappers are from Atlanta. But we wanted to be better than them in terms of unity, and that’s what Raider Klan created.”

13 drops at a chaotic point in hip-hop, as a veritable Suicide Squad of grim, tattooed young rappers — XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, Wifisfuneral, and several others with increasingly absurd stage names — have shoved South Florida to hip-hop’s forefront. XXXTentacion’s breakout hit, “Look at Me!,” for instance, is a coarse, distorted recording of an unruly teenager who screams as if he’s gunning clear across the verge of death; the song currently sits in the middle of the Hot 100 even though it’s 18 months old. In general, rappers have glommed onto the id and universal notions of teen angst as the guiding principles of their music and presence. Their increasingly violent live performances, not to mention their drug-addled downtime, make for a beautiful hellscape from whence neither the dirtbag headliner nor the hapless fans that pack their live shows escapes unscathed.

As far as I could plausibly characterize a 22-year-old man as an OG of anything, I’d characterize Curry an OG of South Florida’s devilish “SoundCloud rap” spawn. He’s an early member of Raider Klan, the young indie hip-hop collective that Miami rapper and producer SpaceGhostPurrp started to assemble in 2008 as a band of eclectic high school misfits fueled by psychotropic drugs and a boundaryless sense of genre.

“Purrp was the main weird one at the time,” Curry tells me over a plate of blackened salmon in a midtown Manhattan diner near Carnegie Hall. His music is dark, but today he’s all smiles as he’s taking a business meeting with SoundCloud and preparing to play a show in Brooklyn the next night. Curry traces the lineage of South Florida’s moment in the limelight back to Raider Klan’s earliest success, in the years after SpaceGhostPurrp’s 2011 release of Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6. “Nobody did shit like Purrp and Metro Zu,” Denzel says. “The trippy, psychedelic, crazy shit.”

The underground popularity of Blvcklvnd Rvdix — a cult-classic mixtape that streams traces of Three 6 Mafia but otherwise sounds like a “new motherfucking era,” as Purrp puts it on “Captain Planet” — provided a local point of organization for a new musical movement. Curry takes credit for building Raider Klan, with SpaceGhostPurrp and his cousins DoDo and Dafi, into a national force that spread so far as to influence A$AP Mob’s early musical blueprint in New York. “I’m the one who introduced Raider Klan to CSPG” — Cokey Shores Posh Gang, another local group of rappers, producers, and visual artists founded by Curry and Purrp key collaborator Metro Zu — “and that’s how it all formulated to one big movement,” Curry says. “It became a thing, like — this is Florida.”

South Florida’s moment in hip-hop’s limelight has been a long time coming. Three years ago, WorldStarHipHop produced The Field: Miami, a documentary about the Miami rap scene. Before the film’s release, Curry, who appears briefly in The Field: Miami, struck up some buzz for his debut album, Nostalgic 64, which Curry released independently in September 2013. Curry has dropped several, reasonably popular mixtapes since then, each more jarring and experimental than the last. But Nostalgic 64 is still his calling card, at least in my mind: It’s the one full project where Curry plugs his otherwise untempered, offbeat angst into conventional pop structures with powerful hooks.

Though he’s a millennial in every conceivable sense of style and literary perspective, Curry is no mumble rapper. His favorite MC is André 3000, and he’s obsessed with Kendrick Lamar. Still, no one would mistake Curry for a hip-hop traditionalist, either. As a collective, Raider Klan was a laboratory for voracious experimentation with off-genre influences (house, emo) and new sounds. I mean “collective” in the extended Wu-Tang universe sense: Raider Klan is a nine-year-old group with a tumultuous lineup, with many members, including Curry, who have departed the group due to disagreements with Purrp — and all this after Raider Klan fell out with A$AP Mob in 2012.

In January 2016, Purrp and Curry spent a few days frantically dissing each other in songs, and on Twitter, due to disagreements over money and influence. The two rappers confirmed the end of their feud six months later, and Curry now speaks of Purrp — widely regarded as the godfather of SoundCloud rap — effusively, in purely respectful terms. “Purrp believed in me,” Curry says, recalling their earliest conversations in 2011. Curry cites Blvcklvnd Rvdix as the project that inspired his own career. And he generally credits Blvcklvnd Rvdix with molding South Florida’s contemporary hip-hop identity. “Everybody wanted to be like Purrp,” Curry recalls. “We would team up with people that wasn’t even from Florida like Lil Ugly Mane, J.K. the Reaper, and Supa Sortahuman.” Curry cites Odd Future — the original band of millennial rap miscreants, born out of L.A. in 2006–07 — as an early lodestar for Raider Klan’s vision. “We would team up with Odd Future because we were like them, and they made it OK for Raider Klan to be Raider Klan,” Curry says.

In a scene so defined by youthful abandon, maturity is a poison pill. We talk about personal growth — quitting smoking and drinking, ending feuds, getting back into kickboxing — but Curry immediately resists my one attempt to frame his various progressions as a sort of growing up. “A kid never gets bored,” Curry says. “I’m not an adult. I’m a growing person. I’m not a grown-up. I like the kid mind-set. And I make shit for the kids. I don’t make shit for someone that’s 40. I make music for kids who don’t understand until right when they’re actually going through it. Yeah, I want to evolve. But I don’t want to grow up.”

Hearing 13, it is virtually impossible for me to worry that the kid belting opera on “Heartless,” the same kid who’s ranting about magic and anime on “Equalizer” and “Bloodshed,” respectively, will achieve adulthood and/or terminal boredom prematurely. At the very least, he agrees that taking better care of himself on the road is a crucial step toward longevity. I’ve seen Curry perform live a couple of times in New York: His crowds throw elbows, and they bang their own heads, but I can’t imagine them busting up each other’s skulls like they do at the fights that have gone down at XXXTentacion’s recent shows. Denzel Curry is too old, too established, and too well-adjusted to wild out completely, even when his hoarsest choruses can barely contain his fans’ excitement.