Denzel Curry on Fame, His New Album, and XXXTentacion : The Limits with Jay Williams Denzel Curry brought his rage to rap. For years, he's been known for taking a crowd and turning it into a moshpit. It was his way of taking his internal pain and expressing it. These days, though, Denzel is looking inward and so is his music. Now his mission is to find peace, and he wants the rest of us to find it too.

Denzel pioneered the Soundcloud rap movement, but the death of his friend, XXXTentacion, made him reconsider his own relationship to fame. In this episode, Jay and Denzel talk about the pressures of fans and how to take care of yourself once you become an icon.

For sponsor-free episodes, weekly bonus content, and more, subscribe to The Limits Plus at plus.npr.org/thelimits. On this week's Plus episode, Denzel reveals who he think is the best rapper in the game right now, and what makes him the most angry.

Denzel just appeared on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. Catch his performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glHqWvkpRqo

Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at thelimits@npr.org.

Rapper Denzel Curry On His New Measurement of Success: Peace of Mind

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JAY WILLIAMS, HOST:

Welcome to THE LIMITS. I'm Jay Williams. When you think of Miami, tell me what comes to mind. Maybe it's the sunny beaches, ah, the hot sand, DJ Khaled jet skiing.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET SKI HUMMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Woo (ph).

WILLIAMS: That's weird but also entertaining - my guys Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Got it.

WILLIAMS: Well, for Denzel Curry, South Florida is all about turning a crowd into a mosh pit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATE GOVERNMENT")

DENZEL CURRY: (Rapping) Anti-American, I'm pro-Assata. I write rhymes like a scholar all about a dollar. Dollar equals Allah. Put away the scouters. You won't see my power. This your final hour.

WILLIAMS: You see; Denzel brings rage to rap, and he's got a lot to be angry about. His brother died after being tased by police, and he was sexually abused as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATE GOVERNMENT")

CURRY: (Rapping) Leave a XO on a death note I wrote. Flow on a back stroke in my black clothes. I'm a asshole, got ghost out the atmos (ph).

WILLIAMS: Denzel pioneered the SoundCloud rap movement and paved the way for guys like Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd and his own housemate, XXXTentacion. What they all have in common is taking that rage and expressing it. You know the feeling. I know it. Will Smith knows it. But what matters is how we channel it. And on his new album, "Melt My Eyez See Your Future," Denzel is channeling that energy into self-reflection and healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKIN")

CURRY: (Rapping) Walking with my back to the sun. Keep my head to the sky. Me against the world - it's me, myself and I. Like De La, got in touch with my soul. Treading softly on a path...

WILLIAMS: And unlike all those rappers I just listed off earlier, he's setting his sights on the kind of success we don't talk often enough about in hip-hop - peace of mind. Here's my conversation with Denzel Curry.

D, what's good, man? How are you feeling today, brother?

CURRY: Oh, I'm pretty good. I'm chilling - you know what I'm saying? - just vibing.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I'll just jump right into it, man. My producers let me listen to your song "Ultimate," which was dope, by the way. And he was actually saying it would have soundtracked the Will Smith slap back in 2016.

CURRY: Oh, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTIMATE")

CURRY: (Rapping) I am the one, don't weigh a ton. Don't need a gun to get respect up on the street. OK. Under the sun, the bastard son will pop the Glock to feed himself and family.

WILLIAMS: That's actually your biggest hit, man. Tell me where that song came from.

CURRY: Well, it all started when I met Andre 3000 for the first time, right?

WILLIAMS: Oh, tell me about that.

CURRY: So when I met him, you know, I knew this was probably going to be one of the only times I was going to meet this guy ever in my life. And thanks to my manager, like, I was able to meet him when he was doing his museum. This is when Outkast had that comeback, and they were doing shows and all that stuff and, like, Coachella and everything. And everybody was, like, around him, wanting to take pictures and stuff like that. Of course I wanted a picture, but I was like, damn, I need to ask him three things because this could probably be my only time I'll ever talk to this man.

So I talked to him, and I was just like, yo. Why you kept changing every album? Why you kept doing different sounds? And, like, what kept you going? He was just like - bro, he gave me the simplest answer. Like, I don't get bored. I just try not to get bored. Long as you don't get bored, you can do whatever you want to do, long as you don't get bored and it's true to you. So I took that, went home, changed my hair later on.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

CURRY: And then I started on experimenting with, like, different, like, flows and genres and just, like - you know what I'm saying? - like, finding different ways of rapping, right? So for months, I had this flow. And it was, like, the, (rapping) I am the one, don't weigh a ton. Don't need a gun to get respect up on the street.

Like, because I was listening to mad dancehall at the time. And basically, I wrote the song to no beat. And I remember one night I went - I came in the house. Ronny was playing beats. And I was, like, damn, you just made this? This shit sounds hard. And he was like, no, I'm just going through my old beats. And I was just like, yo, that beat sounds tight as fuck. Like, can I try something on this? And he was like, yeah, go ahead. So that's when he played the beat, and it went off. (Rapping) Dun dun dun dun. I am the one, don't weigh a ton. Don't need a gun to get respect up on the street.

And then he was like, yo, that shit matches. And then it was just like - and I was like, yo. Let me record that right now. So we called over two of my boys, Astro and Gizmo, and they recorded it. We made the cover that night. We dropped it at 4 in the morning.

WILLIAMS: That's wild.

CURRY: And the next morning, it was already at 50k.

WILLIAMS: It was just, like, one of these things where you heard it, you took this creative process, you patched it together, and all of the sudden, it was like, bam. It just hit.

CURRY: It just - well, the reason why we did that is because we just wanted to give out something for the fans, you know? It was, like, at 4 in the morning. We dropped that song at 4 in the morning just for fans to listen to, not even as, like, oh, this is going to be a hit or whatever. Like, we just dropped it for the fans. Just, like, for those little bit of fans that was up around that time, we just played it for them.

WILLIAMS: That's wild. So there just seems to be so much rage on that track and actually in a lot of your music. And I can hear it all over hip-hop. I'm thinking Travis Scott, Playboi Carti, Trippie Redd - all leaning into rage. But do you think rage is the direction hip-hop should go?

CURRY: I mean, rage is just, like, a - it's, like, a emotion, like, you know what I'm saying? Like, any other emotion, it's just, like, a brief moment. But rage - you know what I'm saying? - is - you're - there's a underlining anger about it. And you want these kids to rage because they're probably angry about something that they're not facing, either. So that's why rage connects with, like, a lot of kids out there. You know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: I do.

CURRY: Like, should we have it in hip-hop? Yeah. It's - we should have it in hip-hop. It's an emotion, you know? When it comes down to music in general, it's all about relating to people and how those sounds and sonics make you feel. So rage does make you feel something. It makes you feel angry. So it makes you want to turn up or, like, beat the shit out of somebody. That's an emotion. That's an extreme emotion.

WILLIAMS: I mean, I was thinking about this the other night. Obviously, all this stuff was crazy with Will Smith and Jada and Chris Rock and the Oscars. And I knew it was going to happen, D. It was like - as soon as it happened, it was like, boom. And I'm sitting here thinking, man, like, this is a moment of pain for Will Smith. Was it wrong? Yeah, it was.

CURRY: Yeah, it was wrong.

WILLIAMS: But you can obviously tell, like, there was pain there, you know? Like, and I don't know. Why don't we come to people's aid when shit like that happens? Why does it always go into, like, hot takes, clicks?

CURRY: My main thing is, where was all that energy when August Alsina pretty much put your whole business out there? Where was that energy? Where was that? The whole internet made fun of you because of that. Like, not even because the August Alsina thing - I think it was because of the "Red Table Talk" and then seeing his emotions right there in that moment and him trying to hide it with a smile. You know what I'm saying? He knew he was going into some bullshit.

WILLIAMS: Doesn't that - I do.

CURRY: That smack wasn't...

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

CURRY: That - the smack with Chris Rock wasn't for Chris Rock. It was for everyone that made fun of him in that situation, and that was just the last straw. It just so happened that it hit Chris Rock, and Chris Rock didn't deserve that. He was just doing his job. He was being a comedian.

WILLIAMS: One thousand percent.

CURRY: And I'm pretty sure he didn't know that she had alopecia. Like, they trying to blame it - like, oh, she has alopecia. It was on a "Red Table Talk." She talks about it. Well, I don't think Chris Rock would watch that. You know what I'm saying? Chris Rock doesn't strike me as somebody who - like, I'm going to watch the "Red Table Talk," you know?

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) On a Saturday night, randomly watching "Red Table Talk." Yeah.

CURRY: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: But it does open the door for a conversation around, like, what is enough for public humiliation, right? And I get it. You put out your personal life. You talk about these raw emotions personally. Like, if it works that way, like, it seems like that's an inevitable lose-lose if you put your stuff out there like that, trying to help other people by the way you're dealing with your emotions, right?

CURRY: Yeah. I'm just putting out stuff so people could - like, it could help other people down the line. It's not, like, solely for me. Like, it's - at first, it started off as, like, something that I just liked to do. Like, I always liked rapping, but when I realized it was just stuff that I was dealing with and then I started putting it on paper and then I found out everybody else was dealing with it, too, you know, it just made me want to connect with people more.

WILLIAMS: Well, let's talk about how you have dealt with rage. You've got a new album out, and it's really a left turn. I mean, there's still a lot of anger and frustration, but it feels a lot more calm. On "Troubles," with T-Pain, you're talking about heavy shit, though, like losing your house...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLES (FEAT. T-PAIN)")

CURRY: (Rapping) I just lost my house to the drought, ayy. Damn. Now I'm staying on my mama couch, ayy. Damn. Told me get a job or to bounce, ayy - bounce. Never paid a bill. I cop a ounce, ayy.

WILLIAMS: ...Which I actually think a lot of people would be really angry about, but instead of rage, you sound calm. Where did that calm actually come from, though?

CURRY: The calm came from me understanding that underlining, like - majority of the music I was making was angry - you know what I'm saying? - and aggressive. But under that, you know, once I went to therapy and stuff like that, they realized, like, that anger, there's a underlying sadness. And I had to figure out what I was sad about. So once I figured out what I was sad about, then I started - my therapist encouraged me to experience other emotions - good, bad ones, everything - just experience them, you know? Just, like, feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Take a deep breath (breathes out) and feel. That's one of the tools my own therapist taught me. And like Denzel, therapy was huge for me when I had to pivot in my own life. You see, I've had two attempts at suicide - that failed, thankfully. I've had addiction issues for a long time to OxyContin. If I weren't lucky enough to have strong-willed people around me that forced me to face my own issues head-on and seek tools from people to help me transfer that negative energy into something that was positive in my life, I don't know where I would be today.

After the break, me and Denzel are going deep on therapy and how, when you invest in your mental health, you can come out on top in ways you never expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: One of the things I wanted to commend you on is just your stance on mental health, right? It's something that I've struggled with, Denzel, for a long time in my life. I still combat it and fight it every single day. And I'm just - what do you think about when I say, in order to be mentally strong - what does being mentally strong mean to you?

CURRY: Mentally strong is being able to overcome, like, whatever is thrown in your way. You know what I'm saying? It could be the roughest part of your life, and it's just how you, like, progress through it. You know what I'm saying? Most people give up. Most people just, like, succumb to it. But you got to go through hell to get to where you need to go through, you know, and just being able to allow yourself to feel and understand that you are good enough. You know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: Man, you've been so real and open about some things - I mean, your brother dying at the hands of the police. You've talked about being sexually abused as a kid. I mean, how did those experiences impact the type of music you've made?

CURRY: Well, at first, like, it was just, like - I use music as a way to express myself, for real, for real. At first, I wanted to be the best rapper - you know what I'm saying? - and show that I could do something. But once I was able to gain that voice and gain certain things - like, it took me a while to build that courage to talk about those things because my brother died right after I made my first ever, like, album, per se, when I made "Nostalgic 64." And that really took a toll on my mental health and everything, and I just never had dealt with a loss like that in my life. And then, you know, I've been dealing with, you know, the sexual abuse thing since I was, like, a kid, you know? So I didn't even know it was a problem until I got older, till I got, like, around 23, 24 years old, you know?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, no, 100, man. I - one of the things, you know - me almost passing away when I was 21 years old, right? It's a lot to process, and sometimes you get moving so fast that you don't really - it doesn't really hit you - right? - until a life event can slow you down to force you to think about it. Did you - you know, with your brother, did you find yourself - because you said it was right around the time of your first album, did you find yourself throwing yourself into your work more? Was that part of your healing mechanism?

CURRY: No, like, when it came down to my brother's death, bro, like, I didn't even get a chance to grieve 'cause I had to do all this work and just distracted myself from it. And then one day, I just broke down and cried. And that was, like, in 2016 because seeing my mom, my dad and two of my brothers, like, you know, like, all together with me. And it was at a show. It was in Miami at the North Beach Bandshell. I went backstage and started crying, like, a lot because I realized, like, one of my brothers wasn't there.

WILLIAMS: Damn, that just - that sounds so - how did you even manage that, man?

CURRY: I mean, I don't know. I kind of was on autopilot for, like, a majority of that time and then dealing with, like, all the things that - you know, just, like, people around me and stuff like that, the environment I was in. It was just, like, a lot to process. Dealing with a breakup, dealing with all types of things. Even my own actions, I was, like, somewhat dealing with, you know, and why things went sour so quickly. And I didn't realize, like, all of it was stemmed from what happened when I was a child. You know what I'm saying? And I didn't really get that realization until 2019 when I didn't even want to, you know, like, be here anymore. I didn't want to live. I didn't - you know what I'm saying? I just didn't want to be around people.

WILLIAMS: I do. We have - you know, what's crazy? We got so much in common, man. You know, I've had two failed attempts at suicide. I had a lot of demons that I had to deal with internally in my own life. And it's crazy. Like, I - it wasn't until later in my life that I actually decided to take it seriously and try to go see a therapist and really deal with my emotions. And, like, I - so I really can relate to how you felt 'cause I didn't want to be around anybody at all, either. Like, was there somebody that you confided in that helped you manage that process? 'Cause that's a very pivotal time.

CURRY: Well, it was my girlfriend, Kelly. You know what I'm saying? It's like, she was the one who helped me find a therapist that I could - that I still talk to to this day. And - you know what I'm saying? And, like, my therapist has, like, pretty much helped me guide - you know, guides me through recovery even though - you know what I'm saying? - I might fight her on certain things, and - you know? And sometimes I don't see her as much. But, you know, she's been there from the beginning. She just wants me to recover properly. You know what I'm saying? It's not about perfection with her; it was, like, progression, mainly.

WILLIAMS: It's not about perfection; it's about progression. Where are you on the progression?

CURRY: I'm doing pretty well on progression. You know what I'm saying? Couple of mishaps here and there. But, like, just progression - like, I've just been progressing, like, day by day, hoping that I don't go backwards. I'm not trying to take 10 steps back after taking five steps forward, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Denzel's thinking about growth and the future and how big of a star he wants to be. He's got a new measurement of success. And when we get back from the break, he tells me how he's going to get there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: So a few years back, Denzel's house in South Florida was the equivalent to an artist commune. It was called the ULT House, and it was there that he and his boy, XXXTentacion, would be up until 4 a.m. throwing parties and making dope music. But Triple-X was a complicated dude, an undeniable talent, but he also had serious sexual assault allegations against him. And before he was shot, he made more headlines for his vices than his actual art. So I asked Denzel how he approaches fame after seeing what happened to his boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Dude, I've got to be honest, I listened to your album from front to back, man. The thing is, it's dope. It's incredible. And it doesn't sound like someone who wants to conquer the world; like, I'm on this mission to be everything for everybody. But it sounds like someone who actually just wants to make good art. Do you want to be the most famous rapper in the world? Like, did that ever cross your mind? Like, was that ever on your vision board?

CURRY: It did cross my mind. But I realized, like, if you don't have the mental capacity to withstand all that stuff, like being famous and people coming to you and, like, sacrificing your private life because of that, like, you know, it's going to be hectic for you. You know what I'm saying? I'd much rather be like, OK, you know me for my art and I can go about my day. I don't want to be chased by 30 billion people or having weirdos outside my place, like, planning to either take pictures of me while I'm somewhat naked or, like, someone planning to rob me because they know I got money. You know what I'm saying? Like, that's the lifestyle that I don't want.

I just want to be able to provide for myself, my family. And when I have kids, because I know that's going to happen one day, like, I want to be able to show them like, hey, you got this, you feel me? I did this, but I can still be able to raise you right, you know what I'm saying? Because even as a rich parent, you probably won't have time for your kids because you have a busy schedule, you know? So that's what I'm doing. I'm just planning, like, all right, I can make all this money and get all this stuff right so I won't have to be able to struggle for the rest of my days and, like, I can retire whenever.

WILLIAMS: I was listening to an interview where you were talking about fame and you were talking about you were good friends with the late XXX. It seems like fame was a double-edged sword for him, man. Like, he was at one point of the most famous rappers in the world. But for a lot of people, it seemed like he was famous for the wrong reasons. Do you think, ultimately, like, that led to his downfall?

CURRY: No. He was famous for the wrong reason. He was famous for the wrong reasons. What got him into trouble is what got him famous.

WILLIAMS: Like, can you give me a little bit more detail on how you viewed that while that was going on?

CURRY: I mean, I don't - to be honest with you, I don't even want to talk about XXX too much because the whole world talks about him now. It's time for me to, like, just talk about myself. Like, you know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: So how about this? Let me - I do.

CURRY: Not in a selfish way at all. Like, no disrespect to him or his family, but I did too many interviews where I just talk about him and people would...

WILLIAMS: Facts.

CURRY: ...Negate the conversation or talk about me.

WILLIAMS: Understood. So how about this? You ready? Because I feel like every experience ultimately leads to something that you can learn and grow from. And we all need rain and sunshine to continue to grow towards where we want to be. So through that experience, what did you ultimately learn about yourself that has put you on the road that you're on now?

CURRY: What I learned about myself was that, you know, it's just - like, I could be a - damn. How do put this in the right words? What I learned about myself was that I'm not this guy or this idol that people could just see and idolize. I'm a human being, you know what I'm saying? And just - that's what I am at the end of the day. I'm a human being. Like, do not worship me. Do not idolize me. I am a human being. I could piss you off just like anybody else can.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it feels like there's also trust with fan bases, right? And I feel like today, fan bases are constantly looking for you to produce, constantly asking you to give them content. Now, I know you spoke about this on your song "Clout Cobain," where you said, I just want to feel myself, you want to kill myself. How do you deal with that pressure from fans?

CURRY: I mean, that's like a double entendre. Like, you know, you want me to kill myself, bend over backwards just to make you happy. But you also want me to kill myself, really. Like, you want me to do something detrimental to my life just to entertain you. And then when something actually bad happens, you're like, oh, my God, I didn't know you was going to do that. Well, you were egging him on and he eventually did it. Now y'all call him a legend because of it.

WILLIAMS: Damn, man. It's - have you ever had, like, an engagement with a fan where you, like - you kept it real with them and they came to you with an opinion and you're like, actually, it's like this and you guys have, like, rapped like that to try to make people understand how it feels to be in the position you're in?

CURRY: I mean, most people wouldn't know at all, you know what I'm saying? When I tell people - like, they be like, yo, yo, yo, they'd be so starstruck about like, oh, can I get a picture? Can I get a picture? Can I - you could tell them no 10 times, and they'll still ask for it. And it's just like, bruh, I said, no. Like - and then all of a sudden, you're a dick because you said no, but you said no the first time. You know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I appreciate your honesty. I appreciate how real you are. I appreciate you tapping into your emotions and showing that through your art. I think you are 101 man. I think you're unique, and I think your vision is going to enlighten a lot of people in this world because people haven't taken the time to think about themselves the way you've thought about what you want and what you want to accomplish. So I commend you, man. Respect to you, D.

CURRY: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Big shout out to Denzel Curry and his team for making this interview possible and making it go down. His new album, "Melt My Eyez See Your Future," is out now. And in this week's THE LIMITS+ episode for subscribers only, Denzel takes stock of the current hip-hop scene, who's the best out there and what makes him the most angry?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: THE LIMITS is produced by Karen Kinney, Mano Sundaresan, Leena Sanzgiri, Barton Girdwood, Brent Baughman, Rachel Neel, Yolanda Sangweni. Our executive producer is Anya Grundmann; music by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Charla Riggi and Edward Wyckoff Williams. I'm Jay Williams. Let's stay positive and keep it moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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