James Baldwin described the 1962 boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston as baffling, bruising, and unbelievable. It was a quick fight, Patterson only lasted two minutes and six seconds against Liston’s knee-buckling punches. His swift defeat left everyone in attendance feeling cheated of what should’ve been a championship battle, not a one-person demolition.
That’s boxing, though. No spectator knows what will happen anytime two men enter a ring to battle. It’s a thrilling uncertainty, one that I felt while watching Miami rapper Denzel Curry entering a custom-built boxing ring on February 29 in his home city for the highly anticipated Red Bull Zeltron World Wide: Denzel Curry vs. JID.
The crowd inside The Warehouse exploded when the champion, Zeltron, stood before them. Their shouts sounded like yells you would hear in Madison Square Garden during a celebrity boxing match, not a rap concert. When you consider it’s not every day that two rappers—especially two rappers who respect one another as lyricists—have a five-round soundclash, the excitement from the crowd was justified. That’s why JID and Denzel Curry made for such a good matchup; they’re cut from a similar cloth of southern rap that’s high-energy and introspective, bangers and bars.
Imagine if hip-hop always had a concert that was also competition for all the rivals in rap. Duking out their differences inside a custom-built wrestling ring. Where was ZWW when JAY-Z and Nas were at the height of “Takeover” vs. “Ether,” I wondered, as Curry walked the ring’s four corners with a champion’s poise to the sound of Rick Ross’ “Hustlin.” All the beef and battles that took place in rap during the late 90s and early 2000s needed this stage.
Envision 50 Cent vs. The Game, T.I. vs. Lil Flip, or Jeezy vs. Rick Ross in a soundclash that required each participant to be more than the better rapper, but also the better performer. Remember, Curry was inspired to create ZWW because of the conflict happening between the artists in South Florida. Finding a way to turn that conflict into friendly competition in the form of a live performance is the genius of his creation. When I told Gat$, who also throws a wrestling-themed concert called GAT$AMANIA, that I would be in Miami for Curry’s inventive homecoming concert, the Tampa, Florida rapper replied: “I wish I could go to ask how he pulled that off permit wise. The permits are what kills us bringing in the ring.”
The ring is essential. It gives the show a unique twist, not easily replicated. I can’t imagine Denzel Curry traveling with the ring, from one city to another, facing his previous challengers—The Flatbush Zombies and Joey Bada$$—without Red Bull as a partner. In our pre-fight interview, he admits he had the idea for years, but innovation and execution aren’t the same. In that regard, Red Bull gave Curry wings, and he used them to create a live event that’s unlike an ordinary rap show.
To Curry’s credit, Red Bull couldn’t pull off the event series without him either. Not only is he the mastermind behind the concept, but Curry’s also the kind of enthralling performer who can maximize the idea by putting on a show that’s one of a kind. How Curry opened the first round against JID showed me that he owns his domain. The way that he transferred energy from his voice to the crowd was a magnetizing display of showmanship. Curry never forgets that this stage is different, this is a wrestling ring, spectators are all around, and energy is everything.
Watching Curry perform with such explosive intensity reminded me of this answer to the question, When did you realize you were making music for the crowd?
“When I made Imperial,” Curry said. “That’s when I knew. Everything on Imperial was banging. Coming from 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, which wasn’t well-received, I had to make something that would be received well, so I decided to crank it up a notch.”
Denzel Curry created his special alter-ego, Zeltron, a culmination of all his personalities into a Superman or, better yet, a Megazord. Whatever Ultimate Denzel Curry couldn’t do, Zeltron could. Curry made him so that he could be unstoppable.
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JID doesn’t have an alter ego, at least, not one he shared with me. But, much like Curry, he remembers coming to the realization he needed to make music for a spirited crowd. “When we did Never Story, I knew I wanted niggas to lose their minds on some Travis Scott shit,” JID said when I asked him about his wordy, high-energy live show.
JID wanted his fans to feel as though they’re attending a lyrical show, with the same rowdy energy of a Lil Pump performance. It’s no surprise the East Atlanta rapper entered the ring and began his first round with “NEVER,” the energetic single that incited sweaty moshpits as the capstone to countless show dates.
As I watched JID in that gigantic ring, looking much smaller than Curry but still a giant in his own right, I thought about my 2018 interview with John “Christo” Welch III, JID’s friend, producer, DJ, and close collaborator who executive produced the Atlanta lyricist’s 2018 sophomore mixtape, DiCaprio 2. In advance of the mixtape’s November release, Christo gave me a ring.
While they were on tour together, Christo and JID would strategically research how production elements would sound in small rooms and how they would sound in big arenas and how to best bring those two mediums into one. By making it on the road, they shaped DiCaprio 2 into a mixtape for the ragers who wanted to enjoy themselves and still hear songs where lyricism was embedded in the overall style of the music.
Concert recaps are the book reports of music journalism. You write what happened and who was there, mostly, reducing the entire performance to the highlights. Some writers do it better than others, but it’s nearly impossible to do a review as unbelievable as the event. I would be a fool to write a play by play of all that took place in the ring, and even if I did, it wouldn’t do justice to how it felt being there, completely enthralled by the song for song, round for round, the clash of the titans.
Based on my scorecard, the first two rounds went to Denzel Curry. The third and fourth rounds went to JID with a little help from two Dreamville mates: Olu of EarthGang and Bas. The venue erupted into pandemonium during the trio’s performance of “Down Bad” and “Costa Rica.”
Still, I knew the final round was the one that mattered. I knew that JID would close with “151 Rum,” but what would Denzel do? To my disbelief, he selected a rendition of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade.” The venue erupted like a volcano. I’ll never forget JID’s face, looking as if Curry suddenly transformed into a completely different person. “What the fuck was that,” he said into the microphone, in complete awe. “JID, come out here and finish this shit, man.”
“That was crazy. This is crazy. I don’t even know what to say,” JID responds, with the two fighters dapping each other up in the center of the ring. “You know what to say,” Curry chimes in. They laugh. JID responds: “Aye bruh, drop that shit,” and the crowd roars to the sound of “151 Rum.”
Together, the champion and challenger bounced around the ring. It was a riveting last song, both fighters still full of moxie and momentum after five rounds. I’m sure they could’ve kept going. But like all great fights, the bout had to come to an end.
“That was a good ass fight,” Curry says before dapping JID once more. “You gave me a motherfucking fight, bro.” As the words, “Before we get out of here,” leave his lips, the crowd starts chanting “SIRENS,” the name of their 2018 collaboration featuring Billie Eilish. There was something about that moment, about the crowd asking for more, that can help us understand why it’s crucial to work with and compete against your peers and rivals. It makes for the kind of friendly competition people eat up. Everyone loves a great battle; no one likes war. Denzel Curry versus JID is the reason why rap battles will always exist; it’s natural for hip-hop to yearn for great talent. Just do it in the ring.
James Baldwin ended his profile of Patterson versus Liston by walking through the crowd with an older black man who said to him, “I’ve been robbed.” He was robbed, literally, but in the figurative sense of being robbed of a great fight. “A.J. Liebling, behind us, tapped me on the sounder, and we went off to a bar, to mourn the very possible death of boxing, and to have a drink, with love, for Floyd.” I didn’t feel that way as I entered an Uber to leave Zeltron World Wide, headed to a bar for one final drink before my flight home. Unlike James, I thought I saw a glimpse of something alive, not dead, while I watched Denzel Curry versus JID.
Their fight made me appreciate rap’s growing relationship with brand partnerships and the possibility of competitive ideas in the space of live performances. A concert is but a concert until you add a ring—until you bring the competitive spirit of hip-hop to glorious life. Then you have more than a concert; you have a breathtaking event that spectators will never forget.