Denzel wears hoodie Juun.J.
Denzel Curry bounds out of AJ Tracey's London home and unexpectedly hands us a chocolate bar. He seems up, bouncing, even. And why wouldn't he be? The 22-year old rapper is behind some of the most thrilling sounds of the past couple of years and is over from his native Miami for a sellout show at London's Jazz Café. He might as well tie in a quick video shoot with grime linchpin AJ Tracey while he's at it.
"I got up around 8 AM, took a shower, got dressed, got ready for the day, headed to the airport, and came here," he says, making a transatlantic flight sound as easy as popping to the shop for a pint of milk and a packet of Frazzles. "We were three hours late to our own video shoot with AJ but it worked out. We had a hard time getting past the border guard because they had to look up what we were doing here to see if we were telling the truth. But we was telling the truth."
In fact, it's hard to imagine Denzel Curry doing anything but tell the truth. Sharp and effortless, ever since he announced his arrival with his debut LP Nostalgic 64 in 2013, the Carol City, Florida, rapper has carved out a space for himself as perhaps the most exciting prospect to have come out of the troubled Miami Gardens neighborhood since Rick Ross. Eighteen years old at the time of release, Denzel had already spent a couple of years as part of SpaceGhostPurrp's cult Raider Klan crew, making his name as the punk kid behind knockout mixtapes King Remembered and King of the Mischievous South. With sonic influences ranging from OutKast to the afro-psychedelia of Flying Lotus, video games to the melting pot nature of his home city — his family is from the Bahamas and his flow reveals a Caribbean influence — Denzel has created a sound that is, like Miami itself, quite unique. What's more, he did it all while still in high school.
Jacket Faith Connexion. Jeans Saint Laurent. Trainers Adidas.
"People used to laugh at me like, 'Hahaha, you can rap? You?! We don't believe it!'" he recalls. Labelled as a weirdo or an art school kid — Denzel designs his own kaleidoscopic artwork and studied at Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High ("I was smart enough to get in, but dumb enough to get kicked out") — his classmates couldn't believe that the Jean-Michel Basquiat look-a-like with the sketchbook was the same kid behind the high-energy bars picking up traction all over the internet.
"One day I went into class and the teacher brought it to the kids's attention, she was like 'Denzel, I've seen some videos of you rapping, and you're actually pretty good!' The whole class was like, 'What? That guy? Hell no, he's a nerd!' They didn't believe me because I didn't look like a rapper. They were all like 'Spit something now! Spit something right now!' And, you know what? The same dude who was shouting it was listening to one of my songs and didn't know it was me. I was like, 'Bro, what song you listening to?' He said, 'Oh, man, it's this other dude named Denzel Curry'... 'Fool, we're in the same class! That's me!' I pulled out my ID and showed him. Me and him got on cool after that."
Ironically, it's Denzel's weirdo, art school cred that has helped make him the toast of the city's annual fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, firmly established as the international art world's winter meeting place of choice (its 15th edition attracted over 75,000 visitors in December). Denzel performed as part of a music program selected by one of the city's leading contemporary galleries, the Perez Art Museum, last year. It was, to put it lightly, a far cry from the deprived Carol City neighborhood he grew up in just a few miles across town.
"Carol City has its hot moments, and it has its cool moments," he'll tell you of an area known for its high crime rate. "If you were from one area of Carol City, people didn't mess with you. Especially in the school house. School houses were where shit took place and then when people graduate or summer happens, that's when it gets hot. That's when shit starts boiling."
Denzel grew up around violence. His brother, Treon Johnson, died after being tasered, pepper sprayed and taken into custody by police at the age of 27. Denzel went to the same school — Carol City High — as Trayvon Martin, the young African American man shot at the age of 17, unarmed and on a visit to see his father's fiancée. He's spoken previously about the depression that has plagued him since his teenage years, all of which has fed into the heavy intensity of his music. "My brother's death. My mother leaving. Eventually my girlfriend leaving because I kept it too real with her. All that made me depressed," he says. "I feel like everybody was thinking that I was gonna fail. And that just made me think, you know what? Fuck depression. Fuck this. Fuck everybody. Because I lost too many battles and I'm not gonna lose this war."
While he admits to "little hits of melancholy" now and then, he is, quite clearly, better now. Stronger even, something his second album, last year's widely acclaimed and appropriately titled Imperial, can attest to. "I'm very optimistic about the future," he confirms. "I'm not saying I'm trying to be the best. I'm gonna be the best. The best me ever. To the point where I can't lose at being me. I can't lose that life. I can't lose anybody and I'm damn sure never gonna lose to anybody again. I'm gonna be stronger. That's my mentality right now. Trying to figure out how to evolve musically, as a person and in all aspects of being smarter and more aware. Learning new things. The more I learn, the more I can do."
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Stef Mitchell
Styling Carlos Nazario
Photography assistance George Koren. Styling assistance Alain Lucas.