On Wednesday night, Denzel Curry kicked off his 16-show run as the opening act on Billie Eilish’s “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP” North American tour with a set at San Francisco’s historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. While Curry’s brooding, pointedly greyscale 2018 album TA1300 is a suitable companion to Eilish’s singular brand of goth-pop, his new album ZUU is the type of body of work that should be performed ahead of a festive, molly-whopped electronic set from someone like Dillon Francis. ZUU is by dedicated party music that primarily functions as a wind tunnel, blasting away inhibitions. It is totally exhilarating, and not just because Curry’s frenzied, shapeshifting delivery and explosive, hair-trigger beats propel it forward from start to finish. Curry is out to cape for Miami-Dade County and rap on behalf of every soul who lives within its borders. It is this outsized hometown pride and collectivist mentality that gloriously brings ZUU to life.
ZUU is a kind of post-‘00s cultural history of South Florida filtered through Curry’s own personal experiences. The term “ZUU” itself is a term Curry uses to describe his neighborhood on the leadoff title track, in which he raps, “Carol City nigga / boy, I’m coming out the / Zuu!” The next track, “RICKY,” is a tribute to his older brother Treon Johnson, who was tased to death by police in 2014. Here, he introduces his parents and, in the song’s music video, the city’s culture of bare-knuckled backyard fights that he was introduced to as a young kid.
On “CAROLMART,” a song named for a local flea market that developers tore down two years ago, he triangulates his age and locale by describing himself as a “real ass nigga from the 305 / I was raised off of Trina, Trick, Rick and Plies.” Across ZUU’s compact 29-minute runtime, a verse seldom goes by in which Curry doesn’t reference his city’s affinity for gunplay. He takes a breather from the pyrotechnics of album closer “P.A.T.” to adopt an absurdly matter-of-fact tone and rap, “I grew up in the city where most people have no goals / It’s cold-blooded niggas in a place that never snow / We’ll rob you for your chain, probably pistol-whip your ho / We carry hollow tips because it reflects what’s in my soul.” Curry uses “we” and “I” interchangeably on ZUU; he presents his own story as a boy who beat the odds to become a successful rapper not as a case of exceptionalism, but as an emblem of a larger community of people.
Curry emerged in the early ‘10s as a precocious teen rapper who offered unflinching, value-neutral portrayals of the violence endemic to Carol City. He began “Zone 3,” a song from his 2013 debut album Nostalgic 64, by pointing to the sky and declaring, “This is dedicated to the memoir of my niggas dem.” This brotherly spirit animates ZUU. Curry’s lyrics gesture to the community flanking him (“There’s a special way I fold my flag…”), as do the ways he layers his voice; on the hook of “CAROLMART,” for example, he stacks his vocal takes and first pitches them up, to sound like a pack of kids chanting at recess, then down, to sound like a squad of grown-ass men flexing en masse. The album’s sense of camaraderie extends to its two Miami-centric skits, which revolve around the casual friendships that exist between everyday people.
Curry has always rapped like he has a hurricane at his back. This sensation has never felt more true than on ZUU, which achieves lift (and a G-force of at least five) on the wings of tremendous, steroidal beats liberally adorned with 808 cowbells. The Australian duo FnZ are responsible for majority of the album’s production. While they earned several placements on A$AP’s Rocky Testing and have been Curry’s go-to producer since his 2016 album Imperial, ZUU is surely their magnum opus. “BIRDZ,” which combines punishing 808s with the mosh pit equivalent of the whale sounds from Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf,” might be the hardest beat of the year. “SHAKE 88,” with all due respect to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Simon Says,” might be the most raucous ass-shaking anthem of the year. FnZ’s production on ZUU feels literally groundbreaking—raw and hypermasculine, with a special kind of appeal to the male lizard brain. Bros around the world are going to be getting loose to these songs for years to come.
Some people say regionalism in hip hop is dead, but it will never truly die as long as artists like Curry are passionately repping their hometowns. If TA1300 was a deep inward dive, ZUU is a mighty outward gesture, a salute to the masses. If Curry is headed to the top, he’s taking all of Carol City and Miami-Dade with him.