Florida doesn’t have a whole lot going for it these days. If it did, there would probably be more newsworthy headlines coming out of it than the “Florida man on bath salts robs jungle gym with a balloon”-esque stories we hear every week. It’s even harder to give the place much credibility when the height of Floridian art seems to peak at Jason Derulo and Pitbull. However, even the place that gave us Sharknado is capable of producing some modicum of quality: thank you, Carol City, for the hazy, powerful, cloud-trap stylings of Denzel Curry.
In 2013, a 17-year-old Curry rode in on the ‘internet rap’ trend of the early 2010s alongside cult favorites like Lil Ugly Mane, Spaceghostpurpp, and Main Attrakionz — hip-hop artists who take cough-syrup laden instrumentals and trippy visuals a la vaporwave and find niche appreciation in the World Wide Web. What separated him from his cloud-rap contemporaries, however, was the infusion of the Southern trap sound in his music: heavy bass, fervent hi-hats, and an aggressive flow put Curry’s material in a unique juxtaposition between ‘ethereal’ and ‘banger status.’
What makes Curry’s latest effort Imperial stand out in contrast to his previous full lengths is reflected in the man himself — as he’s grown older and matured, so have his songs in their fluidity and overall quality. The few issues plaguing Nostalgic 64 (2013)and 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms (2015) stemmed mostly from a lack of focus, with dull missteps interloping periods of frenzied delivery and intricate instrumentals. Fast forward to 2016, and there now exists a cleaner, more tightly constructed Denzel Curry project: a union of intense, passionate lyricism and absurdly sharp production.
Stylistically, rapid-fire delivery and yell-along hooks still remain the forefront of Curry’s arsenal, with lead single “ULT” encompassing every trait the now 21-year-old Sunshine State native has pushed for the last few years. What makes Imperial special, however, is Curry’s counterpoint to his aggression: “This Life” and the hook for “Sick and Tired” reveal a surprisingly melodic side to an especially vicious artist. Additionally, the implementation of features by Twelve’elen on “If Tomorrow’s Not Here” and — yes — Rick Ross on “Knotty Head” leads to an emulsion of intermingling styles, with both artists playing sonic counterparts to Curry’s persona. While impressively avoiding the classic trope of playing copycat with one’s features for the most part, a sole lapse of resolve can be heard on “Zenith,” where both production and flow seem to fall in line with feature Joey Bada$$, and Curry’s trademark sound is dropped for jazzy New York instrumentals and Pro Era flow.
Regardless, Imperial maintains a largely unique tone throughout, with much credit due to producer kings Ronny J and Finatik N Zac — the work put into the instrumentals for tracks like “Gook” and “This Life” results in some of the most unique, elaborate, and criminally infectious beats in Curry’s arsenal. A distancing from the Miami RVIDER KLVN/Spaceghostpurpp sound is apparent, as the beats on this record resonate with a flavor contrastive to Nostalgia 64’s vaporwave influenced instrumentals. Layers of synth, complex arrangements of drums and hi-hats, and superb usage of bass provide the perfect atmosphere for whatever thematic material a track covers, and are arguably as important to Imperial as Curry himself is.
Ultimately, Imperial serves as an exceptional bookmark in Denzel Curry’s ongoing story — a highlighted passage in what seems to be an inevitably victorious narrative. Here, an older Curry swings from unabashedly impassioned (“Sick and Tired”) to remarkably vulnerable (“Pure Enough”), all while riding on top of some of the most impressive instrumentation this year (“Gook”). The various points of improvement from earlier records alongside a number of commendable new decisions coalesce to form the best Denzel Curry record yet — and hey, probably the best thing Florida has the privilege of owning.
There’s only one soundtrack to the Zone 3 in 2016, and its name is Imperial.
Article by Adil Siddiqee