Tuesday, July 31, 2018

album review: 'TA13OO' by denzel curry

So I always tend to get a flurry of comments whenever I cover trap music or Soundcloud rap that it's not intended to be lyrical or deep, it's just looking to be flashy or brutal or direct, relying on sheer raw power or its presentation to stick the landing. And while there is some truth to this, my counterargument is always 'well, you can have both, you know', as there's such a thing as visceral, hard-hitting hip-hop that can also be fiercely lyrical - Kendrick Lamar, Doomtree, Run The Jewels, Sage Francis, Death Grips, etc. Now the counterargument to that is often, 'well, it's too underground or too conceptual or too weird, what about easier subject matter?' And then I point at ScHoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Styles P, Freddie Gibbs and you all get my point, but then the feeble defense is 'well, they're older and more traditionalist and I can't relate', so then I point to BROCKHAMPTON and that does tend to work, but then you get the charmers who get put off by all the gay content and who argue how they just want a new MC that appeals to pure trap rage for teenage white boys to live out the fantasy - because it is always white boys here. 

And while my natural inclination is to be dismissive and vaguely contemptuous - too late - my other response is point at Denzel Curry and say, 'are you happy now'. Most often their answer is no because they want me to validate their Soundcloud waifus who make me think they really should reconsider BROCKHAMPTON, but I honestly think Denzel Curry hits a really damn satisfying middle ground, especially coming off of his 2016 project Imperial. Explosively melodic production, bellicose but well-structured flows, and the sort of layered, self-flagellating content that unfortunately saw a lot of people dismiss his material as shallow but revealed significant depth in between the lines. Now my perennial issue with Denzel Curry has been on the production side, but when I heard that TA13OO - album complete with edgy spelling - had opted for even more abrasive and explosive production, I was definitely curious, especially as noisier experimental hip-hop is still relatively uncharted ground besides Death Grips and blowing out your subwoofer. So okay, what did we get from Denzel Curry on TA13OO?

So this is one of those projects where I keep thinking I should like this a lot more than I actually do, because it seems to do a lot of what I wanted Curry to do coming off of Imperial - the production is more varied, as is Denzel Curry's delivery, his hooks are as sticky as ever, and yet his trademark intensity and brutality is more prominent than ever, forming a contrast sharper than ever from his melodic flair to his more guttural shouts. But the more listens I gave TA13OO - and outside of thinking that some critics need a broader vocabulary of references when it comes to Curry's brand of hip-hop - the less I was completely convinced it worked all the way through. Hell, in terms of its progression what it reminded me most of was ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ by Joey Bada$$ from last year, but where that record grounded its more accessible and melodic flourishes in mid-90s hip-hop tones and a fully-formed social conscience, TA13OO spirals into a twisted bleakness that seems to pull from previous Denzel Curry projects and head into more personal territory but miss some of the deeper shades of nuance that made Imperial so damn compelling. 

And yet pinning down why that is can get tricky, especially because with every banger here, Denzel Curry only sounds better than ever. Yeah, it can be jarring when you he's throwing in references to Pokemon, Jimmy Neutron, and Katy Perry with his most guttural and vicious delivery to date - it can just feel tonally dissonant and this has been an issue going back as far as Nostalgia 64 - and if there's a rapper who could afford to take a breath and indulge in some subtlety it's Curry, but you can tell he's convinced that if he brings enough raw charisma, complex flows, and huge hooks, people won't notice the details that don't quite fit. Which... okay, if that's the parallel to Yeezus critics are making, I could see it, but Curry's brand of darkness is very different than what Kanye tried - more familiar with splitting the difference between Death Grips-esque experimentation and nihilism and the mainstream, tempered with the brutality that comes with street-level brutality. And in comparison to many of his peers in this lane - and Kanye for that matter - Denzel Curry can rap his ass off, splitting the difference between staccato bluntness, more melodic sing-rapping, and a commitment to more traditional bars where the reference points are pretty straightforward but consistently well-structured on a technical level.

But I'm sure some of you were intrigued by that reference I made to Joey Bada$$ earlier, especially as ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ was easily one of the best albums of 2017. Well, beyond the increased reliance on melodic singing and a renewed focus on balancing accessibility with bars, there's a thematic parallel as well, as both records begin with a (relative) lightness of tone before descending past a smokier grey zone into pitch black darkness. The most notable difference is that where much of Joey Bada$$' focus was outwards on the larger world and largely aspirational, there's a more pronounced sense of damaged nihilism that pervades even the brighter songs, with a consistent early callback being towards the movie IT, reflecting neglected outsiders finding some form of camaraderie amidst their trauma. But even that solace can be denied when his work gives him success, which flips the typical 'more money, more problems' content into something different, as Curry doesn't seem to feel all that comfortable celebrating a success that further isolates him from his friends and neighbourhood - hell, on songs like 'SUPER SAIYAN SUPERMAN', it's almost buried but it's telling he's still with the same girl! But amidst his paranoia in the face of betrayal, possible bipolar disorder, and unresolved grief in the face of his brother's death at the hands of police, his own success seems to push him even further off the rails, especially as he hits the stark realization of systems and environments that not only reinforce that systemic trauma, but want to revel in it or push it to extremes while never changing to help those caught in their midst, with the parallel to Kurt Cobain on 'CLOUT COBAIN' being on the nose, but not altogether wrong. And thus it makes a sick sort of sense that this record ends in some of the darkest places Denzel Curry has ever trod, and while he still has naked contempt for rappers who can't rise to his level of wordplay, there's still a sadomasochistic death wish in how he plainly knows what image will win over the suburban teenage white boys who'll never grasp the deeper roots of this in reality... which might not be helped by Denzel Curry making it all feel so damn anthemic in his bangers where some will not be able to get past the presentation, but Curry is putting this in the text, and the interpretation of the twisted spiral of nihilism does feel like a natural extension to the subversive side he brought to Imperial.

So why in the Nine Hells do I not like this more? Well, believe it or not, it might be the production, which paradoxically at the brightest and darkest moments really connect, but in the middle can hit a weird grey zone for me. The lingering guitars and thick bass of 'TA13OO' that lead into the sweet mid-90s bass groove of 'BLACK BALLOONS' is phenomenal and starts the record really strong, but then we get the slightly more garish synth leads of 'CASH MANIAC' with its lumpy trap touches and it feels depressingly conventional for a rapper like Denzel Curry, especially recruiting singers like Nyyjerya and and later Billie Eilish for hooks, even if I really do like a lot of the conscious content from Denzel Curry and J.I.D. on 'SIRENS', even with that grainy clicking sound that runs over the bass melody. But really, the choice of those oily, desaturated synth leads goes back to Nostalgia 64 and I wasn't really a fan of them there either, and even with the more distorted vocal pickups and dirtier reverb or clunkier bass saturating a fair few of these tunes, they don't quite have the texture or distinctive catchiness that redeemed the best cuts from Imperial. And that does get bothersome when for as much as Denzel Curry denigrates mainstream MCs for not forging their own way, the triplet flows do creep in and some of the more distorted moments do show the hallmarks of what's become known as Soundcloud rap. That said, when this record tilts into its darkest and more abrasive moments, from the minimalism of 'BLACKEST BALLOONS' to the more alien synth lead of 'PERCS' to getting JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami for the off-kilter and twisted 'VENGEANCE', I started to really get into it... until you realize the last song is going to pivot into acoustic guitar instead of descending into the nightmare fuel you expect, or that even when you get legit death metal growls on 'BLACK METAL TERRORIST', the song never quite gets as graphic and crushing as it could, mostly thanks to the oddly squeaky hook. Yeah, it's probably closest to Death Grips this record gets and you can tell Denzel Curry gets the vibe better than Kanye ever did, but it still feels a shade too clean to really embrace abrasive noise that'd truly put Curry in experimental territory - close, but the punch feels pulled.

Now all of that being said, I still really do like this album and I'm inclined to say it's on the cusp of greatness... but I'd be lying if I said it got all the way there. And that's frustrating for me to say, because Denzel Curry is a great rapper with a lot more nuance than he's often given credit, and his talent for hooks is undeniable... but at the same time for the emotional arc he's pursuing there are production and word choices made that seem to compromise the overall tone, and that got distracting, especially when considering the record as a whole. He's still leaps and bounds ahead of so many in the Soundcloud scene, though, so when I give this an extremely strong 7/10, the recommendation most comes to those who are looking for something that's a considerable grade above the 6ix9ine ilk. And hey, I still think Denzel Curry's got the versatility and capacity for greatness, and he's still in his early 20s, so I'm definitely looking forward to where he goes from here. In the mean time... yeah, check this out, solid stuff.

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