Pain and Depression in the Mind of Denzel Curry

Music Video Analysis: “Black Balloons Reprise” by Flying Lotus feat. Denzel Curry

by Colin Hodgson

Introduction

If you haven’t hopped on the Denzel Curry bandwagon yet, you’re missing out. The Carol City native is one of the most highly regarded rappers of his generation and has been on the rise since his breakout single “Ultimate” in 2015. His lyricism and delivery are incredibly creative, and his consistency is unmatched. Each bar, song, and album is different from the last yet somehow manages to reach new levels each time. This is also true of his music videos as he experiments with different styles to match the tone and meaning of each song.

In this post I examine the video for “Black Balloons Reprise” by Flying Lotus featuring Denzel Curry, paying close attention to how it depicts Curry’s struggle with mental health issues.

Context

Denzel Curry performs at such a high level despite — or perhaps because of — an incredibly difficult life full of tragedy and loss. His brother died after being tasered by police, his close friend XXXTentacion was shot, and the list goes on. Curry uses music as a therapeutic outlet for the anger and depression that has resulted from these hardships. The clearest example of this is in his album TA13OO, released July 27, 2018.

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Denzel Curry. TA13OO, PH Recordings, 2018.

In TA13OO, Curry opens up about the issues that have been plaguing him. He articulates how they have affected him mentally and emotionally and how he has begun to overcome his depression. One metaphor stands out: the black balloon, the focus of “Black Balloons (Feat. Twelve’len and Goldlink)” and “The Blackest Balloon”. These songs discuss his unstable mental state, and how widespread depression affects society. Likely influenced by the sinister balloon in the movie It, the black balloon symbolizes his depression. TA13OO is divided into three acts — light, grey, and dark — and these two tracks appear in the light and dark acts respectively. In an interview, Curry revealed that there was one final black balloon song not present on the album. This unreleased track is the sequel of the trilogy and belongs in the grey act, balancing out the structure of the project even if it doesn’t officially appear on the album. As promised, almost a year later on May 21, 2019, Flying Lotus dropped “Black Balloons Reprise” featuring Denzel Curry.

The music video premiered more than six months later, on December 3, 2019. The video was directed by Jack Begert who was already an established music video director working with big-name artists like Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Doja Cat. The dark mood and content for the video was a departure for him, but the structure and striking visuals are characteristic of his approach.

Analysis

The “Black Balloons Reprise” music video can be categorized as a concept video centered around the theme of all-consuming depression and darkness. The scene are not connected except with regards to thematic elements or the emotions expressed and aroused.

The glue that holds the video together is depression and suffering, and the despair and helplessness that are a result. This is depicted visually by the black and white color palette. The lack of color invokes a lack of joy and emphasizes the darkness in the world around Denzel Curry. The camera movement also emphasizes this. The slow swooping motions of the camera coupled with the persistent use of slow-motion creates a feeling of depression-like sluggishness.

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The first shot in the video shows Flying Lotus watching a dozen or so black balloons float upward. The large quantity suggests a widespread issue of depression. Interestingly, the California palm trees that usually symbolize a happy paradise resemble black balloons in this shot. This shows the darker underbelly of “success” (fame and fortune) and implies that it’s not always as great as it seems. Finally, the slow push-in by the camera and the use of slow-motion creates a sense of helplessness in the viewer. They are unable to stop the balloons from floating away, and they are being sucked closer to the dark world below.

Sure enough, the next sequence comes down to earth with Denzel Curry in an enclosed garage surrounded by black balloons. He starts the song by saying “the Big Bang happened when the black balloon ignited/I feel the pain shoulder to shoulder as I was knighted”. He explicitly links the black balloons to pain and implies that he has to carry this burden like Atlas holding up the world. The reference to Atlas illustrates the immense pain he is in. The visuals of the balloons around him also suggest that he is surrounded by suffering. The lights are harsh and strobe-like and the movement is quick and violent, separating it from the rest of the video. These jarring lights keep the viewer off balance and uncomfortable.

This performance sequence is followed by roughly a half dozen loosely connected sections with striking visuals. They all stick closely to the theme of darkness and depression, but they form into two general groups: the subconscious and the societal. The shot of his shadow growing horns and the shot of him in a dark void drawing a box around himself are both depictions of his subconscious. The first shows an evil side of him, possibly an allusion to Jung’s theory of the shadow. The second implies that he is responsible for his dark state of mind as the box signifies a constricted way of thinking.

The shots of the world around him, including the half-balloon-half-man creature, show that it’s not just an internal issue. The darkness that starts in the subconscious is shown to take form in the physical world. Showing the balloon man in multiple locations creates a sense of omnipresence, and the fact that no bystanders notice it (him?) shows that it is an issue most people ignore despite its prevalence.

Two shots that stand out are those of Denzel Curry battling with black balloons on the front steps of a house. Both are in super slow-motion, and the first is reversed so that a popped balloon pulls itself back together in front of Curry. This relates to the prequel to this song, the original “Black Balloons”. In that song, he says, “soon black balloons pop/let it be the day the pain stops”. The popping of the balloon signifies an end to the pain and suffering. This release could be death, but it could also mean breaking through your cycle of depression and finding joy in your life again. In this context, the image of a popped balloon recreating itself is a bleak one filled with hopelessness. Curry seems to have broken free from the depression and pain only for it to immediately reform.

The second shot comes towards the end of the video. This time there is no time reversal, but at least six balloons hurtle towards him as he tries to escape. Each time he pops one there’s another right behind it. In this instance, each balloon can be seen as a different cause or aspect of pain as shown by the fact that each has a different color of smoke inside it.

Whereas the earlier shot creates a sense of hopelessness, this shot is perhaps the first uplifting shot in the video. While there is still a sense that the balloons are overwhelming him, his determination to overcome them is visible in his body movement and facial expression. During this part of his career, Denzel Curry often expressed pessimistic tendencies that at times come close to nihilism. In this song, however, he moves past nihilism into existentialism. He states, “We all die/nobody couldn’t handle the truth, we all lie/then wait to see the real exposed/’til then, I kick that funky shit ’til my casket closed”, suggesting that he’s going to enjoy his life to the fullest regardless of what comes after death. This relates to the shot in the video. Even though he is completely overwhelmed by darkness he is still using every ounce of energy to try to surmount it. He never makes it, but it’s the intentions that matter.

Finally, the video ends with a return to the first scene. Flying Lotus is still on top of the garage, but this time he’s facing the camera. The camera pushes in on him and he pulls up his sweater to reveal a Mac Miller shirt. There are two reasons he does this. First, Mac Miller recorded a verse for the track but died before anything could come of it. The shirt is a nod to that, but it is also an acknowledgment that Miller himself dealt with a lot of depression in his own life, and that he has finally found peace. Mac Miller no longer has to struggle against the black balloons. For such a bleak track and dark video, it’s a somber but uplifting end that shows that the positivity you put into the world lives long after your physical body. In this way, Miller was finally able to defeat the black balloons.

Conclusion

The music video for “Black Balloons Reprise” stays true to the thematic vision of Denzel Curry and Flying Lotus. The director, Jack Begert, explores the internal manifestation of depression and pain and depicts how these widespread issues go unnoticed in America. Through the imagery of the black balloon, Begert creates a feeling of helplessness in the face of pain and suffering. The final two shots, however, offer a glimmer of hope. Curry’s attempt to fight through the balloons shows a human strength to persevere no matter how desperate the circumstances. The reference to Mac Miller in the final shot suggests that the impact we have while we’re alive lasts longer than our physical bodies. In this way we can overcome the darkness.

Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on August 27, 2020.

Analyses of some of the most interesting and important music videos of the past decade.

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