Emerging from Florida during Southern hip-hop/trap boom of the mid-2010s, Denzel Curry, initially, with 2016’s Imperial and the explosive Ultimate single, was notable for the barrage of force and power that he brought to the style, with an inherent dominance that’s uncommon for such a young talent. Following that up with the heavily conceptual TA1300 in 2018, it became apparent that Curry is one of the most unique and powerful voices in the scene, with a machine gun flow and sense of aggressive braggadocio that’d leave lead in anything standing in his way.
After 2019’s ZUU, Denzel proved he wasn’t intent on taking a rest year with the January-released 13LOOD IN + 13LOOD OUT mixtape. This suspicion was only confirmed with UNLOCKED EP, in collaboration with Kenny Beats, who himself has been a busy bee, producing Rico Nasty’s Anger Management album last year. However, despite their seeming compatibility, it should be noted that Beats has a notably different flavour compared Curry’s more familiar instrumentals, opting for more abstract, psychedelic takes on the trap banger. This is one of many reasons that UNLOCKED is one of the 2020’s most eye-catching releases so far.
Despite only running for just over 15 minutes, there is so much going on with UNLOCKED. The execution is pure intensity, with both Curry and Beats turning it up to 11, to the point where it’s hard to imagine them keeping it up for any stretch longer. Although, saying that, the length is the album’s immediate weak point, because there is so much potential between the two that a full-length could be the best hip-hop album of the year — perhaps even the incoming decade.
To start, and it’s a big starting point, Denzel Curry has NEVER sounded better — NEVER sounded harder. The criminal level of monstrous aggression is flooring — it makes ULTIMATE seem like a hushed lullaby sung by an old nun. Fuck a murder scene, on UNLOCKED, on every bar, Curry’s flowing like the blood on a genocide. Strong words, sure, but ever stronger are the diabolical quotables that litter this thing like a garbage truck in a car crash — “Doctor buggin’ out like Flik versus Hopper” (a rare Bug’s Life reference on a hardcore hip-hop record), “I be stickin’ to the paper like a thumbtack“, “Put thorns to your crowns, you go out like Christ” or, my personal favourite, the simple but brutal “If the game was a tooth, I’m a fuckin’ pair of pliars“.
That lyrical blood diamond comes courtesy of the incendiary DIET_, which is probably the most fully-formed single on the EP. Everything about Curry on this track is simply untouchable — the aggression is there, the flow is varied and precise, the lyrics are aforementionedly dOPE. He also, as hasn’t been unnoticed by literally anyone who hears it, is channelling pure DMX vibes when he gets into his raspy hollering on the hook — it’s a fitting and awesome throwback.
Although, he’s not the only one taking it back to the 90s here, as there is a definite stroke of boom-bap and jazz rap that runs through Kenny Beats’ dense production. The beats throughout, especially on tracks like Take_it_back_v2 and the aforementioned DIET_, are huge and bassy, packing the same punch as Rick Rubin job, but with this almost alien spaciness to them. Other tracks, like the eponymously-dope So.Incredible.pkg and interlude Track07, have funky basslines that you could imagine Q-Tip or even an early Fresh Prince spitting over — easily the kind of thing you could cruise to at two miles an hour, so everybody sees you.
That’s not to say that this album is only going for a nostalgia kick, Beats has this knack for injecting these abstract yet accessible moments of psychedelia through his heavy use of samples and vocal manipulation — as well as a cute bit of pitch bend on the mutha to really hit the acid. The vocal manipulation is particularly effective in that it, when used like it is, makes Denzel’s already huge verses sound just golIATH — like Godzilla spat rhymes instead of flames. What’s also a very colourful addition is Beats extremely creative use of compression, with tracks like So.Incredible.pkg having this massive, expansive moment when the beat drops as a result.
The only real fault with UNLOCKED has nothing to do with its performance, but rather its construction. From the track titles, to the length, to the few tracks that feel like unfinished demos, it’s clear that this isn’t a finished album. These demos, while the beats are hard, they’re made up literally of reused verses and, however effects-laden they are, you can’t really make room for something like that on a 17-minute project. Especially considering the towering potential on display, it’s just a shame to not see it go even nearly as far as it could.
Overall, you won’t hear too many rap tracks that go as hARd as those on Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats’ UNLOCKED, at least not in 2020. The beats are fiery and bouncy, yet often crushing and heavy. Furthermore, despite the experimental edge on many of them, you’ll still happily put yourself in a brace bobbing along to them. On this, Denzel has never sounded better, taking influence from the best MCs of 90s, while also adding his own unfuckwitable style to result in some of the most impressive mic work of the century. However, due to its tragic brevity, one can only hope for a proper album from these two in the future.
best tracks: DIET_, Take_it_Back_v2, So.Incredible.pkg