Review: TA13OO by Denzel Curry

Ultimately, easily one of the most simultaneously hardest and atmospheric hip-hop albums of the year.
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Imperial was the rare case of an album that seemed to steam-roll hype by quality of music (what a novel concept) and word of mouth alone, and Denzel Curry follows up his breakthrough album by getting more ambitious (13 tracks, split into 3 “acts”) and delivering on that ambition. (Each of the songs here have an alternate stylized title, and the set-up reminds me most of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief of all things.)

The first act demonstrates that ambition the most, opening with a block of songs that you don’t expect from Curry: the guitar pings and gentle keyboard waves opening up space so Denzel Curry can rap about molestation (“I knew you wasn’t normal ever since the age of nine / I heard you were molested when you hit the age of five”) that turns out to be autobiographical (“Taboo was me the whole time,” he tweeted, to the shock of everyone, including feature JPEGMAFIA). I cannot think of a bolder opener this year than “Taboo,” and he follows that up with “Black Balloons” and “Cash Maniac” as well, both of which suggest that there might be a lucrative pop rap career in it for him should he ever go that route (although Nyyjerya’s choruses on the latter do leave a little to be desired). And despite the catchiness of the hook that’s wormed its way into my head for days on end, “Black Balloons”’ invocation of looming depression (“Black balloons, over my head / Let it float, let it float…”) demonstrates one of TA13OO’s greatest feats: its atmosphere. And the atmosphere conjured - stumbling down the streets in hazy 3 AM nights - remains true despite several tracks that “go hard” later on.

“Cash Maniac” turns out to be one of the weaker songs here, particularly because Denzel Curry loads the verses with pop culture references that mostly fall flat: “I like ‘Black Beatles,’ but act like Black Sabbath” (this is awful); “I see my Future, but I’m not B-Rabbit” (8 Mile was 16 years ago.) And the real nadir: “That’s me at my lowest (Lois), no Peter Griffin,” which both reads and plays like meme rap. It’s a shame, because we all know he’s better than that, especially when he raps his ass off later on. Even the preceding “Black Balloons”’ pop culture references (“What’s said from Pennywise, I guess we all float”; “Ice Cube with activator when I’m aggravated”; “Sun is my attitude, so I’m cool like Jay-Z”) are handled with more tact and flair (especially the Ice Cube line, whose internal rhymes lead to the next line). And doesn’t his flow on “Cash Maniac” recall Isaiah Rashad’s flow on “Bday” from The Sun’s Tirade to anyone else?

While I’m on the negatives, I’ll just state that the following “Sumo, the first real “banger” here, courtesy of Charlie Heat (he who helped save Kanye West’s “Facts”), is arguably a bit too “rote” (especially in comparison to second act opener/following “Super Saiyan Superman”, with its floating-molecule beat) and is one of a few tracks that I’d cut from the album (more pop culture references, from Chowder to N.E.R.D.) or at least, would’ve switched places with, say, “Sirens” to really demonstrate how much he’s grown on the first act. And while I’m at it, I’d also cut “Clout Cobain” (after Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Ab-Soul, all within the same 2-year time-span, no-less, by this point, I’m really sick of rappers referencing Kurt Cobain’s suicide. That’s it, just the suicide. Nothing else about the dude). And I know a few people aren’t fond of “The Blackest Balloon,” but I think the high-pitched fuzzy synths contrasted with the low-rumble of the bass makes it the most atmospheric banger here.

Finatik N Zac (FNZ), who was responsible for much of Imperial, has his hands in most of the beats here, but the aforementioned “Sirens” was produced by one of my favorites of the decade: DJ Dahi Honestly, I b-lined straight to this track when I saw the production credits, and DJ Dahi does not disappoint. The percussion sounds more like the wings of an insect or even a film projector, and in that sense recalls the unique drum sound he cooked up for Drake’s “Worst Behavior” that I kept wishing he’d follow up on. Over-top, both Denzel and feature J.I.D. offer some of the strongest bars on the album. Denzel, particularly, really goes off in the climax of the first half of the first verse (yeah, he climaxes early, and just maintains that plateau), while loading up on consonance: “Burn the bush and chronic, speaking honestly / We living in colonies, CNN sit-comedies”; “President in abundance, president is a puppet… Donald Trump, Donald Duck, what the fuck is the difference?”; “Genocide, Genesis, they say it’s a new beginning.” By contrast, J.I.D. doesn’t stress hard sounds or go political, he just goes breathless, especially in the middle where he’s hurdling over multisyllabic rhymes (“Are on me really dealing with the consequences / And I see your tones is very condescending…”).

“Sirens” would be an easy pick for the most lyrical song here were it not for the back-to-back closers “Vengeance” and “Black Metal Terrorist.” The former features one of the most unique flows on the album courtesy of JPEGMAFIA who strings together short 3-syllable phrases that constantly threaten violence: “I ain’t Drake, this ain’t 6ix, issa nine, sticky blicky iron”; “When it cries, it cries, if you die, you die, pussy, meet the sky”; “Hear you talking shit on Twitter, 40 make ‘em log off.” Meanwhile, “Black Metal Terrorist” is Denzel Curry at his most furious, to the point that when he tells you to suck his balls-stomach, it doesn’t even matter that it doesn’t make sense because he follows it up with the barrage of alliteration, “Drop bombs, Islamic, flow so dead, sonic,” to say nothing of the rhymes before hand (serious, imperious, insidious, hideous, perfidious, delirious). The quality of the album’s pretty uniform throughout, and then Curry ends TA13OO with an uppercut and haymaker. “Finish ‘em, Zel.” Yeah, you did.

Ultimately, easily one of the most simultaneously hardest and atmospheric hip-hop albums of the year. Personally, I like this one a lot more than Imperial, but I can see why some might not given the fact that the 10-track Imperial was tighter, even though this one only runs 4 minutes longer. Curry’s only 23 years old now, and that he’s grown so much in a two-year span makes me eager to see what more he has in store for us.