Favorite Traps: “RICKY,” “BIRDZ (featuring Rick Ross),” “CAROLMART (featuring Ice Billion Berg),” “P.A.T. (featuring PlayThatBoiZay)”
South Florida has been quite the breeding ground for hip hop over the past several years, and although the SoundCloud movement has given us, for the most part, innumerable generic and forgettable trap rappers, a scene as vibrant and hot as Florida’s cannot help but produce its fair share of heavy-hitters. One such rapper is a man whose praises I first sung for his excellent 2016 project IMPERIAL, Denzel Curry. While it was less than a year ago that Curry released his formal debut TA1300, a new full-length Denzel Curry LP is nonetheless a welcome surprise, and ZUU in no way disappoints. A return to his roots, Curry retreats somewhat from some of the sonic experimentation of TA1300 and his 13 EP—if it sounds concerning, it’s not. By returning to some of his more central influences and sounds, with a much improved handle and a more refined ear than he had several years ago, he creates something altogether more satisfying and complete than some of his early projects.
Upfront, ZUU is not nearly as ambitious of a project as TA1300, which was released in three parts with something of a half-baked concept behind it. Instead, it runs at just under 30 minutes, a compact and listenable record that almost begs for repeat listens in the same way that last year’s Wyoming projects DAYTONA or KIDS SEE GHOSTS did. Make no mistake, Denzel Curry returning to his Florida roots can only mean one thing: this is a full-blown trap record. The oversaturation may put some people off from the genre right now, but believe me when I say that as far as this particular subset of hip hop goes, this is what peak performance looks (or sounds) like. The title track “ZUU” is dark and foreboding, with a captivating hook and some haunting woodwind patches filling in the atmosphere. That opener leads into the album’s lead single, “RICKY,” an absolute grade-A trap banger that finds Curry ruminating on his childhood and lessons taught to him by his parents. It’s a kickass one-two punch to open the record, and the hits don’t stop with the next two tracks, “WISH” and “BIRDZ”; “WISH” has one of the more memorable hooks on the record, as Curry clearly hasn’t abandoned his golden ear for hooks, and “BIRDZ” lays claim to the album’s best song, with a stunningly hard instrumental perfectly laying the groundwork for two vicious verses from Curry sandwiched around a spectacular appearance from the king of luxurious guest verses, South Florida’s own Rick Ross. One has to go all the way back to 32 ZEL/PLANET SHROOMS to find a Denzel Curry project that comes as hard out of the gate as ZUU does, if only because he hasn’t made many songs that go this intensely since “Ultimate.”
A return to the familiar doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also get inventive with sounds that might otherwise come off a little bit stale. Curry takes cues from another one of his biggest influences: OutKast. Songs across the entire record feature the kind of immediately sticky hooks, inventive and fresh drums and beats, and an effortless hybrid of hard bravado and flippant humor that were the hallmarks of all of André and Big Boi’s most classic releases—“CAROLMART” and “SHAKE 88” especially are both blood-pumping and exciting tracks with an innate bounce that conjures flashbacks to STANKONIA. It’s around this back stretch of the record that Curry also introduces a couple skits, one of which, “YOO,” is actually a pretty hilarious send-up of the Miami vernacular.
Finally, after an entire album of restraint, he at last unleashes his more experimental tendencies for the closer, “P.A.T.,” which is driven by distorted and overbearing bass, harsh synth tones, and drums that are just barely clipping out of the high end of the mix. Curry being a noted metalhead, TA1300 and the 13 EP gave us some tantalizing glimpses at what a young trap rapper who grew up on thrash and nu-metal could sound like, and “P.A.T.” serves as ZUU’s entry into that canon. Denzel and guest PlayThatBoiZay both deliver heavy and intense verses, bringing the album to a bruising, high-energy conclusion.
Only nine months after dropping an ambitious full-length LP that cracked my personal top 20 albums of 2018, Curry’s returned with further confirmation that he is one of today’s most exciting must-watch young artists. ZUU is certainly not as boundary-pushing as its immediate predecessors, but for as great as the material here is, it doesn’t need to be. On this record he pushes his talent towards hooks, impressive-as-ever bars, and lets a newly refined attention to detail do the work for him, and the result is one of the most plainly enjoyable hip hop records of the year.