The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.
If 2018 was the year of important big name albums, 2019 has been the opportunity for rappers to make small scale, not personal project that have nonetheless eclipsed their predecessors in urgency and impact. Where event albums like Drake’s Scorpion or Nicki Minaj’s Queen came and went, this new breed of nostalgic, unapologetically insular albums with a focus on regional appeal have changed the face of rap superstardom.
Beginning in November with Vince Staples’ ode to Long Beach summers, FM!, and continuing through to just a few weeks ago with Megan Thee Stallion’s Houston anthem, Fever, deeply personal, autobiographical, hyper-specific albums are proving that their recipe can be a formula for success as well. Now, Denzel Curry joins their ranks with his own audio tour of his Carol City stomping grounds, Zuu.
Perhaps best known for helping kickstart the Soundcloud wave alongside beatmaking surface-to-air missile Ronnie J, Denzel got his start years earlier as part of Raider Klan, the internet-bred band of sonic subversives whose throwback looks masked a futuristic approach to beats and rhymes. As the most widely recognizable surviving member of the group, Curry became something of a vanguard for the speaker-smashing, avant-garde, punk-rap dadaism that symbolizes all things South Florida.
Of course, while many of his peers — Kodak Black, Lil Pump, Ski Mask, XXXTentacion — seemed content to simply churn out their two-minute tracks and dabble (heavily) in prescription pills and cough syrup, while some are even torpedoing their own careers with their off-the-mic antics, Denzel always seems to have more on his mind. His most recent album, 2018’s Ta13boo, featured his most earnest, artsy ruminations on politics, social concerns, and emotional maturation yet. It was dense, heady, noisy, and at times far more polished-sounding than it had any right to be, but the whole thing came across a little too try-hard from the overly complicated rollout to the eerie clown makeup Denzel sported for the album’s promotional imagery. The overall impression was a little like, “See? It’s art! Get it? Get it? … You don’t get it.”
On Zuu, however, it appears that Denzel has learned the principle that Vince, Megan, 03 Greedo, and Rico Nasty figured out this year: Everything doesn’t have to be “deep” to be good. Zuu smartly scales back the theatrics and delivers the sounds of Miami Gardens’ Carol City neighborhood, from the beats to the rhymes to the guest rappers, finally peeling back the layers of artifice to reveal something real about Denzel Curry.
According to the statistical analyses from Twitter account Hip-Hop By The Numbers, Zuu contains the least words per song of Denzel Curry’s albums, the least verses per song, and the least bars per song, yet contains an astonishing ratio of unique words. In other words, he might be rapping less, but he’s saying more, and that’s what is truly impressive. Both Zuu’s rhymes and beats are shot through with a nostalgia that never becomes cloying or gimmicky. Denzel simply uses the references to put the listener in the time and place, setting the scene in vivid, colorful, but deftly efficient strokes.
On lead single “Ricky,” he compares himself and Raider Klan to Three 6 Mafia, Wu-Tang Clan, and The Diplomats all in one, explaining both their mindset, aesthetic, and impact in one brutally simple bar. “Speedboat” switches between reckoning with the paranoia of inner-city living and his current, elevated standard of living, praying: “Jesus, please deliver us from evil / Please pray over all my people / What you see in life’s illegal / I don’t wanna use my desert eagle.” Rick Ross, a fellow Carol City native, drops by to deliver an energized verse on “Birdz.” There’s even an ode to Carol City’s local flea market, “Carolmart,” so named after the iconic local destination. There’s a sense of culture and location on Zuu that brings the scenes to life and makes them real.
Likewise, the beats are straight out of the boomboxes blasting on the stoops and the stereos in the classic muscle cars that slink through the sun-washed Miami streets. “Wish” would elicit just as much enthusiasm in the ‘90s as it will this summer, while “Shake 88” is a club anthem that speaks as much to the sensibilities of the aforementioned Three 6 and their cultural ubiquity throughout the South as it does to the everlasting power of the donk. Producer of the moment, Tay Keith, ladles a piping hot helping of his futuristic, kick-heavy post trap all over “Automatic,” providing an intriguing and heady blend of both old and new. As much as Zuu reflects Denzel Curry’s influences, it’s mindful of the now, creating a timeless effect that suggests it may eventually become exactly the kind of album it was influenced by — an indisputable hometown classic.
Zuu is out now via PH Recordings / Loma Vista Recordings. Get it here.