Denzel Curry Walks the Path of the Samurai
"I had to change, and I'll get better over time the more I learn, and it'll be the hard lessons where I'll learn the most."
Published Mar 23, 2022No matter how many times Denzel Curry gets hurt, he never seems to slow down.
When the Florida-bred firebrand speaks with Exclaim! in early March, he's already one month into rehabbing a torn ACL, sustained while "playing around, trying to wrestle with this dude." For the artist who previously sprained both his ankles leaping from a JMBLYA festival stage in Texas in 2014, and in 2019 famously led a raucous crowd at London, UK's Wireless Festival both seated in a wheelchair and hopping on one leg following another stage dive crash-landing, this shredded ligament and subsequent surgery mark his worst injury to date. Still, he remains patient and in good spirits: "It's been a long time, but you know, I'm working on it. I'm able to move my leg and everything, I still can't run, can't jump yet. I just got to do these exercises."
Movement has been a core tenet of Curry's artistry across his first decade of work, present in the region-hopping stylistic experiments of his early mixtapes, and in the dual-wielding of aggression and affectation that has defined his most acclaimed material. If his authoritative voice — which can slide between tuneful singing and a bruising, gritty shout at a moment's notice — doesn't grip one's attention, his evocative, efficient and often clever writing assuredly will, whether detailing his internal thoughts or relaying his observations of the world and people around him. In his willingness to manoeuvre between these delicate and destructive extremes, Curry consistently imbues his music with feeling, holding the power to move listeners emotionally as much as he is capable of doing physically.
Ligament injury recovery aside, the ongoing global pandemic also played a role in sidelining Curry, prompting rage and reflection in equal measure. On standalone single "Live from the Abyss," released shortly before the United States' 2020 presidential election, Curry delivers a biting diatribe from an empire in decline, protesting continued police brutality against Black people and discriminatory, white supremacist policymaking by the outgoing administration. He also details constructive and destructive approaches to grappling with issues ultimately out of one person's control: for the former, "Always practice martial arts / Misinformed, then you need to read," and for the latter, "I'm pourin' up my Hennessy, fightin' with my shadow self / End up back in therapy, next to God, that's what seems to help."
That acknowledgement is crucial to understanding the artist's headspace on Melt My Eyez See Your Future, Curry's sixth studio full-length, out March 25, which grapples with self-reflection, a desire to grow and improve, and the feelings and forces that help or hinder that aspiration. Where 2020's UNLOCKED (Curry's previous collaborative project with the rangy Kenny Beats) leaned into freestyling, the MC's spontaneity and reverence of colourful characters in hip-hop and cartoons, Melt My Eyez finds Curry writing with the confidence that his pen is mightier than any sword.
In 2016, months ahead of releasing sophomore album Imperial, Curry was asked during a Q&A on Reddit what advice he would impart to artists looking to make a career for themselves. The guidance he offered was simple: "Stay true to yourself, hard work pays off. No lazy shit, approach it like a soldier." On Melt My Eyez, that mentality is best exhibited within "Zatoichi," named for the fictional blind blademaster and masseur who is the title character of one of Japan's longest-running film series. As the song's production charges up, Curry proclaims, "I'm Zatoichi leadin' the blind, pressure get applied," later warning, "So be aware or give me your eyes, inclined to be wise / The pen's a mighty sword on my side, my voice could crack skies." His verses are interspersed by a blistering breakbeat and a hook from his similarly energetic counterpart slowthai, bringing to mind an image of Curry as a laser-focused bushi dispatching foes with a flash of the blade, his other senses heightened by lack of sight. In the song's accompanying music video, helmed by Montreal director and photographer Adrian Villagomez, it's a vision of martial arts mastery brought to life as Curry trains against a sightless warrior played by Montreal-based dancer and performer Sophia Gaspard.
Curry's introduction to Zatoichi didn't come through the celebrated film series or ensuing television show, but via Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks. He breaks down the samurai character reference in 2005 episode "Granddad's Fight" as if fresh off a rewatch: "Colonel Stinkmeaner had to fight Granddad, and Stinkmeaner's blind. Huey was trying to put his grandfather on game about Stinkmeaner because he was able to sense his punches; he thought he had a heightened sense of hearing. So he ends up showing Granddad the blind samurai, Zatoichi, which shocks him and makes him take his training seriously."
For Curry, a known anime obsessive, this led him to seek out the samurai and the warriors' influence on North American culture. He shares, "It wasn't to the extent it is now, where I'm into Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa," the latter of whom also saw movement as a key creative device. "But when I was a kid, I was watching Samurai Jack, Afro Samurai, watching Huey Freeman from The Boondocks bring out the sword when he and Riley would fight. I'm really into Star Wars, and the Jedi basically came from samurai culture, so it's always been there."
The impact of Asian warrior cultures and history dovetailing with modern hip-hop culture cannot be understated. Curry calls himself a "massive" fan of Shinichiro Watanabe's anime Samurai Champloo, which had its soundtrack composed by revered hip-hop producer Nujabes, Fat Jon, Tsutchie (of Shakkazombie) and Force of Nature. Wu-Tang Clan taught rap fans about the Shaolin shadowboxing of Chinese culture, and it was that group's RZA who brought together Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane, Talib Kweli and more Clan members and affiliates to create the soundtrack to 2007's Afro Samurai. Curry slashed his way into this lineage last year with "African Samurai," the lone rap verse on Flying Lotus' soundtrack for Netflix anime Yasuke. To Curry, this cultural fusion was particularly formative as a Black person, "because we've got to cut through things within ourselves and outside."
There are parallels between Curry and Zatoichi. In spite of distressing events in their early lives, both came to demonstrate an intense dedication to mastering their chosen craft, and through triumph and tragedy, now aim to atone for past transgressions in looking to live a more honourable life. Japan's samurai warriors were known to follow bushido, a moral code concerning one's attitude, behaviour and beliefs, and Curry points to the influence of these warrior ways on Melt My Eyez and in his day-to-day life.
"Growth is not always linear, you can't just go A to B real quick," he concedes before drawing from some literal movement he has experienced. "For instance, I stay in Studio City, and say I want to go all the way to Malibu. It's not point-to-point. It's a whole journey you've got to go through, and that's what I wanted for this record. It's a rollercoaster of emotions."
Curry moved from Carol City, FL, to Los Angeles five years ago, leaving the place he had grown up his whole life, and where his traumas compounded. In a 2014 interview with The Source, he shared how losing a cousin to gun violence was a turning point in his own life at age 13, and how close friends of his would later become victims. In 2014, Curry's older brother Treon "Tree" Johnson died after being tasered by Hialeah, FL, police. In a 2018 appearance on The Breakfast Club, Curry revealed that he was molested as a child.
On Melt My Eyez, the emotional journey begins not with movement, but with a state change. Opener "Melt Session #1" leads with a gentle groove, calming keys from Robert Glasper and dulcet harmonies to settle the listener before a confessional Curry rides his train of thought into view. Taking stock of himself and his actions, and how he is perceived by others, he reaches a conclusion of self-awareness: "I'm deflecting my daily problems within my daily life / Recognizing patterns of my own demise."
"I wasn't looking in the mirror as much until quarantine," Curry admits, specifically naming his treatment of others as an area of self he has worked to improve. "Sometimes, I didn't want to change because I'm so familiar with what I was used to, and comfortable with it. But most times, that doesn't make it right, and that's what stagnates your growth. I had to change, and I'll get better over time the more I learn, and it'll be the hard lessons where I'll learn the most."
As an adult, Curry's winding path to mental wellness has included cutting off his recognizable dreadlocks and attending weekly Muay Thai training and therapy sessions. He chronicles the latter on "Walkin": "I pay $180 to talk to one lady / She been regulatin' on how I feel / Describe it as raw and real / I'm dealin' with all the ills / I'm tearin' up like I'm on Dr. Phil."
Speaking about his counselling, Curry divulges, unprompted, "Women are my main vice. I'm not afraid to admit that — that's something that keeps me stagnant, for real. Using women, which is bad, is like a drug to somebody who has that type of problem. My therapist was telling me, 'You've got to give it up. Give up your addiction and everything up to a higher power.'"
Curry's mother is a Jehovah's Witness and his father is a Baptist. As he grew older, churchgoing soon took a backseat to his burgeoning rap career. That therapy session led him to look for and talk to God "on the daily," as he outlines amid the mire of "Worst Comes to Worst." Out of the booth, he explores the roots of world religions to help determine which spiritual path he should follow. Recently, he picked up Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri's The Sealed Nectar, a 1976 biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and 1965's The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
While he has yet to delve into its spiritual realm, jazz music features prominently on Melt My Eyez. Curry shares that jazz factored into his early musical education as much as hip-hop and soul did — his first concert, which he attended with his family when he was no older than four, was jazz guitarist Norman Brown. "I remember we were really enjoying the music, his guitar playing was beautiful," he reflects. "There was a moment where he took his shirt off and he had a white T on, and then I took mine off because I had a white T, and then I was acting like I was playing the guitar."
Curry is familiar with the intersection of jazz and hip-hop: on Melt My Eyez, Freddie Hubbard and De La Soul references leap from his lyrics, and, in a nod to his Freestyle Fellowship fandom, he likens the instrumental improv of horn players like Dizzy Gillespie and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah to the way an MC changes their delivery. His move to L.A. has put him in a hotbed of contemporary genre innovators. He's backed on his latest record by Glasper, Karriem Riggins and fellow anime obsessive Thundercat, and previously joined Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin in decrying systemic injustice with 2020 single "Pig Feet."
"If you didn't know they were jazz musicians, you would probably think they're comedians. All those guys are hilarious," Curry says of his album collaborators. In what is perhaps the ultimate co-sign, Curry has joined Glasper onstage several times at Manhattan's storied Blue Note Jazz Club. "I was nervous," he admits, "and then Robert pulled me aside like, 'Don't be nervous. N—, this is jazz; you can do whatever you want! But we like playing here though, so don't say too much.'" Curry says that watching the players at work and picking his spots to join the musical conversation led his love and understanding of the music to grow in the moment.
Curry remains convinced that he doesn't want to rap forever — maybe pop up with a feature (or flute) every so often like another of his artistic idols, Andre 3000. His love of punk and metal, and the palpable joy felt in his covers of Rage Against the Machine and Bad Brains, have led listeners to anticipate a greater exploration of metal and hardcore. But with the anticipation of a blind swordsman, Curry quickly parries that possibility, feeling it's a move people would expect. In his future, he sees a potential path to apply his auteur streak to the world of film: "I want to write feature films, and get the writing aspect of it down. I want to learn how to write comedies, dramas — it's not just action. Putting scenes together all day, I could do that. Might take some time, but I could do it."
No matter which path Curry chooses, his strength of spirit, found in spit and scrawl, will guide him on the journey. "I'm a writer at the end of the day," he asserts. "I can pretty much write anything."