The west side of Zilker Park went almost an hour without live music Saturday afternoon at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But Denzel Curry broke the silence at 2:10 with dark, thunderous, and problematic rap music.
Early set highlight “Ricky” offered rapid-fire lyrics and a barrage of his DJ’s gunshot sound effects. He’d sway and flail like one of those inflatable car dealership wind socks.
Megan Thee Stallion, whose profile in recent months has grown beyond the early hours of ACL’s Miller Lite stage, did not make her scheduled set.
“We from the south too,” the 24-year-old rapper told Honda stage patrons, here to pick up the slack.
His part from Charlie Heat collaboration “Aloha” went off like a car alarm, full of horn samples and bounce-encouraging drums. “Black Balloons” homaged golden-era, drum-and-bass hip-hop in the key of A Tribe Called Quest with slick pace and sly wit.
Wearing black pants, his own Denzel Curry T-shirt, and an orange cap, the rapper showed technical finesse as a lyricist and infectious energy. Don’t confuse him with emo, bedroom mumblers he’s come up with in Florida like SpaceGhostPurrp and the controversial XXXTentacion. He’s more of a traditionalist writer, though he’s hardly a purist.
About that XXXTentacion past. The two were close, and Curry led fans through a rendition of the deceased rapper’s 2017 viral hit “Look at Me!”
The crowd lost it as he told everyone to “put up your Xs.”
XXXTentacion may have been a popular and beloved internet rapper but he was also an alleged abuser who faced charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant victim and false imprisonment. The testimony from his girlfriend at the time made disturbing national news. To drop one of his old tracks and write it off as a pure homage to a friend was flatly tone-deaf and potentially triggering to hear it suddenly blare across the field.
The set did wrap on a jubilant note. Curry’s circle pit for the set-closing “Ultimate” was so big that his DJ stepped in with a disclaimer before he dropped the beat: “Don’t hurt nobody.”
And he had distinct highs: “Shake 88,” with its “drop it down” lyrics is a built-in freaknic anthem. “Sumo” was menacing and heart-pounding, but not too self-serious: “Pull a [dude’s] card like Uno,” he raps on the chorus. “We don’t take kindly to threats,” he’d bark on a loop during the chorus to “Threatz.”
During SXSW in 2017, Curry opened for post-punk legends At the Drive-In and united that audience’s mixed fandom with mosh pits to match. His rap songs pop with the escapism of sneaking into a rated-R movie. No wonder the ACL teens responded by going wild.
“That was my time,” he said, finishing his time out in the crowd, hugging with fans.