Denzel Curry, the darkly intricate young Carol City, Florida rapper, indiscriminately splattered his home state with moody blues, harsh neon greens, and more than a fair share of overflowing buckets of bloody reds on his 2013 full-length debut Nostalgic 64. But on 32 Zel / Shrooms, the 20-year-old rapper’s sophomore album—ambitiously billed as a double EP—he takes his freakish Technicolor tales of urban blight and adds a vibrant and unique dash of mind manifesting delirium. It makes his second solo effort not only one of the standout rap projects of the year thus far, but one of the most striking hardcore rap albums in recent memory. Where A$AP Rocky recently half-assed the psychedelia on his sophomore album, At.Long.Last.A$AP, Curry’s new project wisely avoids those same pitfalls and ultimately makes for an engaging, compelling listen. For Rocky, A.L.L.A. was a clinical exercise in epic conceit under the guise of being a truly transcendent psychedelic rap album and was largely bookended by being a time-wasting bore, so thankfully 32 Zel / Shrooms keeps things sonically distinct. Curry often finds himself retreating into the calm of nebulous kush clouds of his latest project and puffs away before incessantly rapping his ass off. Lastly, amidst the real world chaos is the overlapping psychedelic motif, which ties this unusual concept album together into a loose escapist narrative.
And to compare Curry’s 32 Zel / Shrooms to Rocky’s A.L.L.A. isn’t an entirely far-fetched approach either. In fact, both rappers actually have quite a history together. Well, somewhat—it’s kind of complicated. Let me explain: Although Denzel Curry has since departed from the group, his name and early musical output will forever be associated with the Raider Klan (“Raider is still the Klan/ But C9 [Cloud 9] is the future,”) a Miami rap collective founded by the enigmatic SpaceGhostPurrp. Once upon a time, Purrp and Rocky were two aspiring underground rappers looking for their big break in the rap game and would often collaborate (Purrp appears as a guest on Rocky’s landmark 2010s mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, and has produced numerous tracks for the Harlemite, as well). But because this is a review and not a gossip column, we shall keep it short: Somewhere down the road—probably around the time Rocky’s rap stock skyrocketed and he inked a lucrative deal with RCA/Sony—their relationship promptly fizzled out and Purrp’s Raider Klan would no longer have any affiliation with Rocky and the A$AP Mob. Apparently there was a situation involving fisticuffs between the two camps, which seems to be one of the main reasons, among others, for the rift. I think guns were drawn at some point, too. Whatever.
Now here they are again, this time with both rappers inadvertently dropping their respective sophomore albums with less than a week removed from each other. And while it’s Rocky who’s currently basking in all of the attention, critical adoration and commercial success (fans reportedly snatched over 116k copies from store shelves, securing A.L.L.A. the top spot on the charts), Curry’s new album could possibly change that long term. But you have to wonder to what extent any rapper with genuine postmodern retroisms can possibly break out at this point in time, especially if they remain ardently independent (and are also unique and really good, too). That’s precisely why a rapper like Rocky can catch on by making elementary grab bag style “psychedelic rap” something, well, less psychedelic. But here Curry comes along, swings the pendulum back in the opposite direction, and no one is there to notice (or care much at all) except for those of us who refuse to wait for mainstream publications to break great artists. Which is why it’s evermore perplexing that Curry’s name was somehow excluded from this year’s XXL Freshman Class magazine cover. But then again, can you really picture Curry sitting through an awkward, self-aggrandizing cover shoot with the likes of Raury and Def Loaf? Didn’t think so.
Despite his relatively young age, Denzel Curry has positioned himself as somewhat of a conceptualist in the rap game, which elevates his already skillful songwriting abilities further. 32 Zel / Shrooms even picks up from where Nostalgic 64 left off; with “32 Ave Intro” echoing the “life’s no game” refrain from N64’s closing track, “A Life in the Day of Denzel Curry Pt. 2”. And although that refrain initially existed within N64’s CPU, it seeps its way into 32 Zel / Shrooms, where those themes of nostalgia, lost childhood innocence and the titular N64 (“One golden bullet to kill all that faggot pop shit,” he rapped on “N64,” referencing legendary video game GoldenEye 007 along the way) no longer apply, and hitting that “play” button on the trippy album cover seems like a challenge more than an invite from Curry himself. In many ways, 32 Zel / Shrooms is the ideal sophomore rap album for a rapper like Curry because it doesn’t drastically deviate from the blueprint laid out by N64 two years prior. Curry, who has noticeably improved as a rapper, has become quite the showman, too. He’s rapping confidentially on the mic, boasting a newfound artistic liberation, and guiding the listener through vivid and exciting urban landscapes. Nostalgic 64—akin to nostalgia and the N64 (the Nintendo video game console)—offered Curry an escape from reality. But on 32 Zel / Shrooms, inner city rage and psychedelic escapism permeates his world tenfold.
But not everything in Curry’s world is palm trees, beach scenes and bikini clad babes. Tracks like “Smoke 2049” showcase Curry’s strengths as a budding songwriter as he lays down an intoxicating hook via the swirling repetition of murky vocals (“Ready to get that smoke, ready to get that smoke, ready get that smoke back in my lungs”) and delivers two equally excellent verses in the process. It’s the closest thing to perfection Curry has done so far in his short career and places him as a rapper who’s definitely more cerebral than even he sometimes lets on. 32 Zel / Shrooms can easily be added to the growing list of rap albums release this year that not only push sonic and conceptual boundaries but also makes a strong case for rap music in the full-length album format. Like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf, Earl Sweartshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and even Young Thug’s Barter 6, 32 Zel / Shrooms brazenly takes on the album challenge, and successfully tackles the obstacle with brevity and confidence. With fourteen tracks clocking in at roughly fifty minutes in total run time, 32 Zel / Shrooms is an album that’ll have you hitting the replay button many times over. And with plenty good reason for it, too.
Denzel Curry largely chooses to bypass the club here, as well—virtually repelling himself from the “turn up” squares—but that doesn’t mean the album isn’t notable for its exciting hip-hop production. “Ultimate”, undoubtedly the peak of aggression here, finds Curry laying down monster verses over a knocking Dixieland sampled beat courtesy of Ronny J. And although it may not represent the sprawling, tripped-out rap experimentation of its time, Curry’s unique brand of lyric wit and daring arrangements continue to expand the limits of how rap music can make you feel and/or think. 32 Zel / Shrooms already stands as the rapper’s fully realized statement of intent, and if he can accomplish that at the tender age of twenty then I’m excited to see what he’s got to offer five, six years down the line. And although it may not seem so, the underrated Curry shows a knack for carefully crafting dramas. Take the album opener “32 Ave Intro”, which anxiously unfurls thanks to Poshstronaut’s slow-burning production, with Curry further manipulating the song’s dynamics by stretching out its occupied spaces and silences; creating maximum drama. And immediately after Curry delivers the bloodcurdling “Face it, you get wasted like it’s GTA/ But this ain’t no Grove Street and you ain’t CJ, nigga!” line, a series of news intermissions pertaining police brutality, excessive force and racial tensions in Florida abruptly pop up halfway through the song—serving as a necessary, albeit very grim, reminder of the senseless violence that occurs in America.
Taking into account the recent wave of nationwide unrest surrounding police officer involved shootings in Ferguson, New York City and Baltimore, you cannot possibly pen a Denzel Curry review today without briefly touching on his hometown of Carol City. Carol City is important to Curry and he makes that abundantly clear: It’s in his DNA as both a person living in this mad world and as a rapper. At times Curry’s more of the former, never forgetting his humble upbringing as well as those whose importance cannot ever be contested. Curry, a recent graduate of Miami Carol City Senior High School, knew 17-year-old Travyon Martin, who also attended the school for two years before being shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, in February 2012. The students of Miami Carol City High, including Curry, staged a walkout shortly following Zimmerman’s non-arrest in the days following the shooting. Although Curry didn’t know Martin personally, his tragic story still resonates with the rapper. Then there’s the death of Curry’s older brother last February, following a severe reaction to a taser attack while in police custody. So naturally Curry takes the time on 32 Zel / Shrooms to call bullshit on the ugly history of systemic racism in America (“What better way to use crack to terminate blacks”). And the somber closing track “Void” looks for strength beyond bedroom walls, opening on a desperate Curry channel surfing alone before ultimately taking a hit of acid.
But 32 Zel / Shrooms isn’t an entirely perfect album and it could certainly use some fine tuning to get it to one hundred percent. For starters, Curry’s hook writing is sluggish and needs some work. While he’s not the worst rapper out at laying down hooks, his delivery on some of these songs borders on embarrassing. It doesn’t happen often but one example where this is a glaring problem is on the track “Delusional Shone”. The track, which is also the album’s longest at over five minutes, features one of the most poorly written hooks you’ll hear all year. This sentiment is especially troubling for me given Nick Leon’s dazzling production throughout the track, as well as the exciting beat change up (courtesy of Poshstronaut) that materializes on the track’s outro. As expected, Curry delivers a sweet, albeit short, spitfire verse: “I cannot fuck with you, let me roll up my bud/ Girl you look like a dime, but can you roll up a dub.” But the quality deteriorates rather quickly, mostly thanks to Twelve’Len’s weed carrier tier verse and counterfeit Chris Brown hook. (“It’s cool cause you are delusional/ Cause you know that we know that you are what you are, your shone.” Um, what now?) But not all the features totally suck: C9 regulars Nell and J.K. the Reaper stop by on “Bwoii” to contribute some of the better raps on the entire project. To be specific, it’s actually J.K. who snaps here, one-upping both Curry and Nell in the process; certainly no easy feat to accomplish.
Rappers in the ’10s—those raised in front of a computer screen and who found success via social networking sites like Tumblr—tend to wear their influences on their sleeve. And naturally, Denzel Curry is guilty of this as he and fellow South Floridians Raider Klan once drew heavy inspiration from ’90s Memphis rap (a.k.a. horrorcore); a rather macabre subgenre in which graphic imagery is evoked amid samples of screams and other sinister sounds. But thankfully Curry has grown exponentially since then and is no longer outright mining some obscure rap aesthetic from yesteryear. Instead what we get from Curry here is a hermetic rap affair; Dungeon Family legend Big Rube supplies a spoken word outro on “Past the Wudz” (the title and instrumental of which is another Family reference) and “Planet Shrooms” bears quite a few sonic similarities to Stankonia’s “Snappin’ and Trappin’,” finding Curry playing up his André 3000-esque sensibilities. If you were unsure of 32 Zel / Shrooms then I suggest you wait until the album’s final three tracks, because that’s when the album’s high quality becomes quite evident, offering the brief rising action and climax of this unusually concise concept album. During “Planet Shrooms,” Curry imagines the black race transcend beyond preconceived stereotypes, just as social constructs have finally crumbled. “Void,” the gorgeous finale, surveys the wreckage after the crash, sounding like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s being lead through a spacey rendition of “Tha Crossroads”. 32 Zel / Shrooms then simply fades into silence following a bitching guitar solo—a concept record beautifully and unapologetically finishing what it started.