“This is my throne, my chair, my stool” — Denzel Curry, “Cosmic.m4a”
Miami, Florida, is a nine-hour drive by car, 14 hours by bus, and two hours by plane from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. On the final Friday of February, I flew to the tropical city that birthed the cultural phenomenon known as SoundCloud Rap while reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms to attend the Miami date—2/29—of Red Bull Zeltron World Wide. ZWW is a special kind of indoor, turn-based soundclash. In a custom-built wrestling ring, Zeltron—an alter ego created by Miami hip-hop titan Denzel Curry—battles an opponent of his choosing across five rounds.
The acclaimed Carol City rapper—who is also one of the forefathers of SoundCloud rap—conducted the first-ever Zeltron on November 16, 2018 against the ever-explosive Brooklyn rap trio the Flatbush Zombies. Presented and produced by Red Bull in his hometown, Zeltron vs Zombies personified the exhilarating intensity of a collision between heavyweight boxers or world champion wrestlers or top-tier martian artists, but with rappers. Rappers who bring the kind of raw, mosh pit punk rock live performance that’s been prevalent in this new generation of underground, SoundCloud rap since the dawn of Odd Future.
As competitive live entertainment, Zeltron perfectly represents Curry, the ball of fire performer who told Pitchfork a month before his battle with The Zombies: “Rap shows are boring to me, and I always had fun going to rock shows and moshing and shit.” I wasn’t present for Zeltron’s debut bout, but in the recap video released by Genius soon after, Curry made crystal clear this event isn’t an ordinary rap show. Only the strong can survive in this unorthodox but compelling war of songs.
War, since the dawn of time, has inspired men and women to become warriors. Warriors exceed ordinary limits and limitations because the human spirit increases in size when confronted with obstacles made of flesh and blood for reasons only God knows. A rival is a special obstacle, though. Rivalry, respectful or otherwise, breeds an exceptional strength in competitors that only appears in heated battles against an opposing side who warrants your absolute best.
Denzel Curry saw The Zombies as worthy rivals; he saw the same in Joey Bada$$, the multi-Platinum Brooklyn rapper who joined him in the ring for Zeltron’s second battle, an event in conjunction with last year’s first-ever Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta. For his third Zeltron bout, the innovative hip-hop thinker chose Atlanta’s JID.
In the lead up to Denzel vs. JID, I reread one of my favorite boxing essays, James Baldwin’s “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston.” Originally published in the February 1963 issue of Nugget, Baldwin’s exquisite profile of the bout between challenger Sonny Liston and reigning champion Floyd Patterson takes the prolific American novelist and culture critic into a world unlike any he’s known.
“I know nothing whatever about the Sweet Science or the Cruel Profession or the Poor Boy’s Game,” Baldwin writes early in the essay, clarifying, from the very beginning, that he is an outsider stepping into a distinct land he only knows by name, not involvement. “But I know a lot about pride,” he continues, “the poor boy’s pride, since that’s my story and will, in some way, probably, be my end.”
As I entered The Warehouse at Magic City Innovation District on a warm Saturday afternoon, I thought about Baldwin in Chicago, interviewing both Patterson and Liston before their historic fight. I thought about how, despite boxing not being the language of his literature, he understood the pride that leads a man to put on gloves, enter a ring surrounded by spectators, and throw punches for more than money and glory.
Although I’m an outsider of Miami and the many different worlds that have immersed Denzel Curry’s imagination, I know rap. I also know that some of the best and most heartbreaking hip-hop has been born amid conflict and battle. What I wanted to know, out of my own interest, is what drew him to make a competition of Zeltron World Wide’s vigorous caliber.
“There was a lot of conflict within South Florida artists. We’re conflicted ass people down here,” the “Ultimate” rapper tells me in a spacious, secluded back room inside the venue hours before his battle with JID would take place. On the table in front of us is a miniature wrestling ring with figures of male wrestlers I don’t recognize. I pick one up as he continues. “You watch people like Buju Banton, Vybz Kartel, and all these guys clashing against each other in Jamaica. I’m watching this shit like, shit, we can do this. That’s what made me come up with the idea six years ago. I thought it would be perfect for us to do sound clashes.”
“I talked to every local rapper at the time. Pouya and the Buffet Boys. Robb Bank$ and SS. All the Miami guys. That’s where the idea resided, locally, but it just fell through. Then years later, when I was finishing TA13OO in 2018, Red Bull came and said we can do whatever you want to do and I was like, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’” –Denzel Curry
When I ask Curry how it felt to face off against the Flatbush Zombies for the first Zeltron, his face lit up. “It was nerve-wracking,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn, am I gonna lose?’ They got shit. People know them out here. They know me out here too, but still, you have to remember, I’m not just facing just anybody, it’s all about who’s gonna bring it. I have tracks that are hard and they have hard tracks, and we’re just gonna see if we could demolish each other.”
When I bring up JID, Denzel calls the Dreamville lyricist one of his “patnas” and explains how he found a UFC comparison that fits their forthcoming match: “This match is like when you see Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva fight each other. It’s a respectful match. It’s like being from the same Dojo type shit. We kind of have the same qualities.”
Initially, because I don’t watch UFC, I didn’t grasp the context of the comparison between Denzel Curry and JID and the two Ultimate Fighters. Admittedly, I still don’t completely get it. If you Google “Anderson Silva,” however, the first result that comes up is “vs Israel Adesanya.” If you scroll down to the second YouTube video, the title reads: “Anderson Silva Breaks Into Tears After Israel Adesanya Weigh-In Staredown.” The first comment, made by STEPHENaSmithTwin Lookup, reads:
“Silva knows the game all too well, he was the young fighter, the new thing, now he stands face to face with himself from years ago. Amazing”
The above comment doesn’t create a parallel between Israel Adesanya and Anderson Silva and Denzel and JID. Still, it did remind me how long Denzel Curry has been rapping underneath the blinding spotlight. Just think about it. Curry’s critically acclaimed mixtape Nostalgic 64 was released in 2013 when the Miami lyricist was only 18 years old, newly out of high school.
Two years before Nostalgic 64, at 16, Curry became a member of the culture-shaping Miami collective RVIDXR KLVN, the epicenter of post-DatPiff SoundCloud rap. Popular music blogs and fans alike acknowledged the newcomer—also known under the moniker Aquarius Killa—as a thoughtful, eruptive lyricist and an impressive storyteller. He was southern to his core and could channel southern influences without becoming a carbon copy of the legends who came before him. In some ways, Denzel Curry is Miami’s Earl Sweatshirt, a teen prodigy that, outside of the famous rap group he gained notoriety with, blossomed as a solo rap star. Michael Penn II said it best in his Vinyl, Me Please profile of Denzel in 2018:
“Curry’s had a career an overwhelming majority of folks his age would kill for; he’s 23 and an OG, already five projects and several tours deep.” —Michael Penn II, “Navigating The Light And The Dark With Denzel Curry”
After my final question, I had a few minutes with Curry before the next journalist, so I asked him, simply: How are you? “I’m aight,” he replies, caught off guard. “I’m not bad, I’m not good, I’m just aight.” How do you feel about 2020? I reply. “It started off very weird. We lost Kobe. We lost J. Scott. We lost Pop Smoke. There’s a lot of people we lost this year. It’s crazy, man. I don’t know what’s up with 2020. I’m just hoping I don’t die. Even to the point where, man, I tell motherfuckas, I’m getting tired of this rap shit.”
I ask, Why? Denzel replies: “Sick of doing it, man. I’m just sick of doing the most for people just to call me underrated. I do the most, and people still don’t give me the respect I deserve.”
As our conversation continues, Curry explains why validation doesn’t matter to him anymore. He wants to give his next few albums his absolute best and then shift his focus elsewhere, like making movies or cartoons—anything but rap. Oddly enough, Curry doesn’t sound bitter. These aren’t the words of a rapper bemoaning his status or accolades, media attention, or underappreciation; he was just honest about his feelings.
Something about our exchange reminded me of an excerpt from Baldwin’s profile, a paragraph about Floyd Patterson, the youngest boxer to win the heavyweight boxing title in 1956. Patterson also became the first boxer ever to lose the title and then regain it by the time he fought Sonny Liston in 1962. Baldwin’s writing makes clear that Patterson does not like the press, and honestly, I don’t think anyone who reaches champion stature does either.
So when one reporter asks, “Do you feel that you’ve been accepted as a champion?” with a tight smile, Patterson replies: “No,” but then continues: “Well, I have to be accepted as the champion—but maybe not a good one.” Another reporter chimes in: “Why do you say that the opportunity to become a great champion will never arise?” “Because,” Floyd responds, patiently, “you gentlemen will never let it arise.”
For someone who won the title, lost it, and won it back to make history twice, it’s mind-boggling to read that Floyd Patterson felt unaccepted as a champion. I see a similar spirit in Denzel Curry and the word “underrated.” Not to say anyone is holding him back, or that he’s searching for acceptance, but look at Denzel Curry’s career—it’s unbelievable.
Curry has been performing and creating at a high, innovative level since he was a teenager—he literally skipped prom to attend an Adidas photo shoot—and so I understand why, to Curry, the “rap game” isn’t as fun as it used to be.
Denzel Curry turned 25 on February 16. He’s a few years younger than JID, 29, but after nearly a decade in—next year will mark 10 years since Curry started rapping—he hasn’t lost the burning fire to make engrossing music. Just listen to UNLOCKED, his most recent collaboration album with Kenny Beats, or watch his excellent performance of “DIET_” on COLORS.
“I could do it all, man. I’m not just gonna limit myself to being a rapper,” Denzel tells me. “I’m going to give my all to these next couple albums and after I give my all, I’m fine. I could go on with the rest of my life of my days the way I want to without this motherfucker trying to interview me. If it ain’t about cartoons or movies or anything like that, you know, don’t ask me about rap. Don’t ask me who the hottest rapper is. Don’t ask me about what’s happening within the rap game or who I like right now. I don’t care.”
When I ask Curry about the future of Zeltron World Wide, he shares how much he loves the concept he created and brought to life with Red Bull. “Zeltron matters to me cause I’m trying to do shit that nobody has ever done,” Curry says. “This is one thing I will continue doing in the background while I settle down with my girl, do my martial arts, count my money, stack my money, stock my money, and just do what I gotta do.”
Denzel Curry is ready for the next chapter of his life and career. Not once did he use the word retirement. In the back of his head, Curry can’t ignore his desire to be a human. He wants to raise his kids, own a nice home, love his woman, stay in shape, make movies and cartoons or whatever his creative heart desires, and if he so chooses, make music. If Curry wants to release songs, he’ll release songs. It’s not like he’ll stop being a champion rapper or brilliantly creative, he’ll just conquer different areas.
If we take Denzel Curry for granted today, he might not be here tomorrow. He’s a reminder that if rappers feel they aren’t given their proper flowers, at the very least, we can give them the appropriate attention when they defend their titles.
By Yoh, aka Yohtron, aka @Yoh31