Denzel Curry is five albums into a 12-year recording career which, like many rappers, started with a mixtape.
The 28-year-old is better than the average 21st century rapper, that must be acknowledged, and like most of his contemporaries he has several other aliases to choose from.
His 2022 NPR Tiny Desk concert, which showcases work from his recent Melt My Eyez See Your Future album, is a brilliant reflection of what live hip hop music can be. Backed by the 8-piece Stone Cold Soul Band, Curry gently weaves through four tracks from the album, showcasing his thoughtful and eloquent lyrics against a musical backdrop produced by an extremely tight group of musicians which includes a small brass section. It’s subtle, jazzy, downtempo,soulful… and right up my street.
Curry’s other performance style is to yell his raps, screeching into the microphone maniacally while dashing back and forth across the stage inciting fans to raise their hands and bounce up and down on the spot.
That’s what punters got last night at Auckland waterfront venue Shed 10, where – much to my disappointment, but largely as expected – he was backed by DJ-come-hype man, with the brilliant Stone Cold Soul Band presumably too costly or logistically too difficult to bring with him.
Oh, well never mind, and at least the elaborate backdrop graphics (heavy on Japanese themes) and lightshow made for impressive aesthetics.
It was probably me and only a handful of others who felt a little let-down. Because one thing Denzel Curry can do is whip his crowd into a frenzy, liberally sprinkling the performance with “motherfucker” (so much so it quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome), while also demanding his fans heed his every instruction.
Curry told one patron not to throw a plastic cup – and fair enough too, don’t ever chuck stuff at the performers – while another was informed “I’m not a jukebox bro” when said ticketed punter had the temerity to request a song from his front-row position.
At least one young female fan found the mosh too much, spat out two tunes in and needing some sort of care and attention to recover, while later, the crowd was told to crouch low only to leap back in the air again for more frenzied call-and-response with the headline act.
Local favourite Melodownz – “One of my dogs,” to use Curry’s phrasing – made a brief guest appearance and MMA fighter Israel Adesanya also got a shout-out, reflections of Curry’s fondness for New Zealand and friendly connections to the local scene. Denzel’s there for his generation, not necessarily mine, even if we’ve been buying rap music since before he was born.
Now, I must admit I’ve not paid a great deal of attention to Denzel Curry’s earlier work. If last night’s show was anything to go by, much of his material prior to Melt My Eyez collapses in a heap under proper scrutiny, all one style of 21st century beat with Curry falling into the same trap many of his peers do, thrashing one rhyme sound so much so it loses all real strength and leaves the more discerning rap fan wondering “is that it?”.
Unsurprising, then, his performance last night veered wildly between truly brilliant – on the more reflective, layered and sophisticated cuts – to some forgettable moments when several songs sounded exactly the same and quickly became boring (particularly ending every tune with a shotgun blast sound).
Curry also makes the same mistake of countless rappers, cupping his hand around the head of the microphone, therefore muffling his own voice and making his lyrics difficult to decipher over the relentless mechanised bass.
But when Denzel Curry gets it right, his is outstanding – make no mistake. Melt My Eyez singles Walkin and Troubles were set highlights, while his second-to-last song (name unknown, sorry) featured a beautiful piano riff reminiscent of the great hip hop producers such as Pete Rock, J Dilla or Madlib.
As a hip hop follower of more advanced years, I hope this is the musical path he follows, because on the strength of last night’s performance and what I’ve heard of Melt My Eyez, Denzel Curry is a man who can absolutely get it right – lyrically and musically.
Last night’s crowd was made up of mainly young men in their 20s, so what I like and what they like when it comes to hip hop live music performance are probably reasonably far apart. They’re there for Denzel’s crazed stage antics and hyperspeed yell-raps, while I’m much more comfortable with a narrative I can fully comprehend, elaborate rhyme schemes and soundbeds which reference hip hop’s musical roots. Rap is different things to different people, and it certainly was last night for people choosing to check out Denzel Curry.
– Jeff Neems
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