Upon the release of Denzel Curry’s 2013 mixtape Nostalgic 64, the Carol City-hailing rapper established himself as many things: a closet nerd, a wide-eyed kid enamored with psychedelics, a disillusioned voice that’s as malleable as it is aggressive. On his split-EP 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms, Denzel channels these elements into two neatly divided halves: unadulterated, hard-hitting anger on one end with a cloudy glimpse into his shroom-induced introspection in the other. On both halves, the force of personality that Denzel conveys through his voice makes for a consistently enjoyable listen, though with varying success in terms of the project’s cohesiveness.
The aspect of this EP that is most uncharacteristic of Curry’s established schtick is how polished its sound is. On both halves of the project, Curry chooses beats that are, while still hard-hitting and jagged, cleaner-sounding than something he’d rap over during his RVIDXR KLVN days, or this loosie with Yung Lean. This polished sound palette is the ideal complement for Denzel’s mic presence. Where past projects saw him drag his voice through muddy production like it was just another element of the chaos, 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms has Denzel skipping, leaping, double-jumping across beats like he’s Mario.
On the topic of nerdy references, Curry has them in spades, and he wears them proudly on his sleeve, peppering in references to, among Trayvon Martin and South Florida, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. “I’m shroomed out my mental like Mario Bros.” from “Envy Me,” while admittedly a lazy line by itself, works because the Super Mushroom sound sample that plays right after it. The second verse of “Void,” one of the project’s best songs, opens with the line, “Why these motherfuckers tryna plot? / Crackers be acting green like that nigga Roger Klotz,” another prime example of the endearing offbeat references Denzel makes.
Superficially, there isn’t a whole lot of cohesion between the two halves—the first half is hard and jagged, the second vastly lush. The joy of hearing how Denzel carries his voice, though, is a crucial ingredient on both 32 Zel and Planet Shrooms, the factor that ties the projects together. Even on mediocre tracks like “Envy Me” and “Ice Age,” Denzel has the ability to make grating synth lines and awkward melodies listenable purely by virtue of his ability to open verses charismatically, and how effortlessly he manipulates rhythm and space. For how good Denzel is at rapping in the technical sense, the core essence of Denzel’s appeal is how damn fun it is to hear how his ideas develop. One moment on “Lord Vader Kush II” he’s splitting blunts with lightsaber staves; the next he’s paying musical tribute to André 3000 on “Past the Wudz”; the next he’s clowning on poor saps who think it’s ever a good idea to wear corduroys on “Void.” 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms is the journey of a rapper deciding between two paths to embark on. It’s a project of uncertainty, and that’s okay; we the listeners are the ones lucky enough to witness Denzel Curry discover Denzel Curry.