Let’s be honest about South Florida’s rap scene: The region is full of creative talent, most of it unheralded. The Haitian hairstyles, Trick Daddy’s dirty grimaces, Miami Hurricanes jackets and “The U” hand symbol that dominates Miami’s hot blocks are pillars of the South. And yet, the melodic stylings of Atlanta and Louisiana draw most of the region’s attention, even as Miami hip-hop has vividly incorporated the culture of the city into its scene.
Over the last decade, Denzel Curry has escaped that curse of nonrecognition, carving out a distinct presence in hip-hop’s mainstream with his flair for versatility. For Curry, who hails out of Carol City, there’s an A$AP Rocky-esque dynamic of belonging to a regional music scene while eagerly embracing outside influences. A Houston screw and Memphis phonk fanatic, Curry’s always been less anarchic than a traditional SoundCloud rapper (despite being from the region that put the genre on the map), but more chaotic and downtrodden than, say, a comparative elder like Rick Ross and his soulful raps about luxury.
Curry’s chameleonic duality has led to varying results. 2019’s ZUU remains his best commercial work — an example of someone returning to and going in on their roots to make a masterclass in Miami rap. But 2020’s UNLOCKED and 2021’s UNLOCKED 1.5, both collaborations with producer Kenny Beats, were undirected, derivative and scatterbrained. On the new Melt My Eyez See Your Future, released March 25, Curry delivers introspective meditations on the id and upheavals of navigating life as a Black man. With eclectic, but warm productions, Curry doesn’t sound quite at home.
Gifted with evocative writing, Curry can be funny or drastic, but he’s always balanced. His bars have a seen-it-all calmness that his regional peers lack. On “Melt Session #1,” produced by multi-genre pianist Robert Glasper, he lays out a scene with tranquility: “Dealt with thoughts of suicide, women I’ve objectified / Couldn’t see it through my eyes so for that, I apologize / I’m just hypnotized, working hard to empathize.” That calm isn’t always consistent though; when reaching for serious moods and topics of discussion, he sometimes falls short which leads to an ill-conceived line like “life is short like a dwarf” in the tainted hook of “Zatoichi.”
Still, at his best, Curry’s a purposeful writer. His scene setting is reminiscent of that in Kendrick Lamar‘s good kid, m.A.A.d. City — examining the effects of growing up in a location meant to trap you in an eternal cycle of violence and confusion — but Curry lacks Lamar’s energetic tics, his exultant tone and long list of enemies to keep an eye out on. He floats on the hook of a bouncy “The Last,” spitting, “Any day can be our last day / So much trouble on the streets / That we need to buy a AK.” Missing the controlled chaos and scuzzy production of his early, more high-octane work, the line and its delivery are too clean. Curry opts here and elsewhere for long State of the Union-like verses, almost as if aiming for an introspective Top Dawg Entertainment album set in Florida.
As for the features on this record: they vary. The track worthy of most discussion is “Ain’t No Way,” a stacked co-production by Powers Pleasant, Sucuki and Lo with guest verses from DMV rapper Rico Nasty, J.I.D of Atlanta’s Spillage Village and Ohio’s Jasiah. Nasty is solid, giving a short but strong verse about being above the haters, while the usually grating J.I.D. is serviceable: Instead of trying to show how good he is at rapping, he advances the song with a pliable flow. The problem is that Nasty and J.I.D. don’t belong on this record. And, as it features beats from nearly everyone (Thundercat, JPEGMAFIA, Glasper, etc.), they’re not the only ones. As Curry gets deeper into his career, he’s steadily advanced towards true alignment with mainstream hip-hop and its standards of success. That journey’s taken him further from Miami’s cosmic universe, the setting where he sounds the most comfortable and produces his most substantial work.
In the past, Curry’s music sometimes felt like he was attempting to do too much. If ZUU features Curry loving on his home, then Melt My Eyez builds on those roots to aim for a higher plane of creativity. You hear that on the Cardo-produced “Sanjuro,” which finds Curry fully in his Miami Hurricane duffel bag, its up-tempo flow pounding with his surging legato blur. No doubt that Melt My Eyez is admirable in its ambition to think bigger with more features and producers, but Curry’s better when he sticks to one sound.
Jayson Buford is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The Fader and Pitchfork.