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Denzel Curry - ZUU Music Album Reviews

The South Florida rapper puts on for his city and delivers the best, most dynamic, and altogether hardest album of his career.

Three years ago, Denzel Curry was working out how to represent Carol City, the Miami Gardens neighborhood he grew up in. The music he was making didn’t scream South Florida, the way, say, Kodak Black’s does, but he was a South Florida boy through and through, and he wanted to make that known. He’d rapped about how his city shaped him on songs like “Chief Forever,” but he could never quite channel and embody that love. It wasn’t until now, on his new album, ZUU, that he figured out how to show appreciation for and celebrate one of rap’s most underrated regions.

Of course, Curry’s music has always been deeply indebted to the culture of his hometown. His initial mandate was to simply prove that Miami was more than Scarface, Art Basel, and spring breakers. “Most people come down here expecting that South Beach shit,” he said in 2014. “It’s not just that. We got hoods too.” ZUU dives even deeper. There is a familiarity that feels like watching a secret handshake. It doesn’t shy away from the nastier aspects of learning to love a violent place; on “P.A.T.” he raps, “I grew up in a city where most people have no goals/Just cold-blooded niggas in a place that never snow.”

Deeply referential, ZUU scans Carol City, Dade County, the Greater Miami Area, and the wider South Florida milieu. From the Miami Bass of the ’80s to Port of Miami-esque coke-rap epics and the chants of Trick Daddy and Trina, through Raider Klan phonk and the bass-boosted rioters Curry helped pioneer with Ronny J, the album maps the sounds of Florida and his path through them. These are all touchpoints along a journey of self-discovery placing Curry’s music in the lineage of his great Miami forebears. It samples MC Cool Rock & MC Chaszy Chess, has a Bushy B interlude, references Blackland Radio 66.6., dusts off Ice Billion Berg, and pays homage to Plies. (The only person missing is fellow Carol City High alum Flo Rida.) There’s drug money, and speedboats, and ass shaking, and the U swagger. You can hear and come to appreciate his love for this place and its music. The album is so rich with the subtext of Florida, and local rap history, it feels lived in.

He does this with Australian production duo Finatik N Zac, or FnZ, backing him. With credits on every Denzel Curry project since 2016’s Imperial, they have been as instrumental to his success as Ronny J. Here, they help realize his vision of a Miami rap mood board. They produce or co-produce eight of the 10 songs (excluding the two skits), stitching together something both nostalgic and forward-thinking. Their distinctive and vibrant octave-shifting synth lines help bond disparate templates, including the kingpin excesses of the Rick Ross-assisted “Birdz,” the twerker energy of “Shake 88,” and the trunk-rattling lows of “Carol Mart.” But the binding agent is Curry, who puts himself at the heart of the city.

Inside the swirling, expansive tribute to his hometown, Denzel constructs his origin story. The album is at once personal and communal, splicing throughlines of individual identity and civic pride. “This what you made me, Carol City raised me/Trick said ‘I’m a Thug,’ that’s the hate you gave me,” he raps on the title track, connecting a local psalm to cross-generational hip-hop scripture. There are lessons from parents, memories from a since-demolished Miami Gardens flea market, quiet eulogies for XXXtentacion, who he recently described as his brother, the way Poseidon and Hades were brothers, and his actual brother Treon “Tree” Johnson, who died in 2014. Even more impressive than his mastery of the local musical language is how he puts his own music and story at the center of it all. He is the bridge connecting all these things.

Since 2013’s Nostalgic 64, Curry has been a proven polymath. His raps can be blunt or sharp-edged. He’s as comfortable barring out over Wu-Tang beats as he is covering Rage Against the Machine. ZUU mines all of it to construct his most complete and thrilling music yet. It can be dark, it can be funny, it can irreverent, it can be urgent, but it’s never tonally unbalanced. He runs the full gamut from singsongy shapeshifter (“Wish”) to nuanced, panoramic storyteller (“RICKY”) to aggro black metal terrorist (“P.A.T.”). He has been all of these things before but he’s never put it all together like this. He took up freestyling while recording TA13OO last year and continued to do so in these sessions, and there’s a looseness to his verses that lends itself to the process of recall. Memories come flooding back with immediacy. He performs as if it’s all just coming to him in flashbacks, as if that history is in him. Being “raised off of Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies” is his pedigree. There are few forces more powerful than the feeling of belonging. In creating his stunning Miami rap opus, Denzel Curry taps into that, demonstrating that he belongs among its most distinguished representatives in the process.

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