Denzel Curry recruited the prolific Kenny Beats for the production of his latest album “UNLOCKED,” released February 13.
The collaboration is unique, splitting both spotlight and credit between rapper and producer, but the pair makes it feel effortless. Their forces are near equal and opposite, weight and counterweight tethered by a sturdy rope. Curry is dominant, chaotic, and unpredictable as ever, which is precariously grounded by Kenny’s polished instrumentals. But every so often, the tie is severed, treating the listener to brief forays into the territory of each respective artist.
Curry is no stranger to the rap game, but his hunger has not yet ceased. He brings the same level of aggression to each track on “UNLOCKED” that you would find from a brand-new rapper trying to pave their way. Kenny Beats, on the other hand, is relatively new blood to the rap game – but in little time has managed to prove that he is a commodity and an essential asset.
Beats is known most notoriously for his presence on Rico Nasty’s “Anger Management” as well as Vince Staples, “FM.” Nasty and Staples both have a quirky, combative nature to their sounds as artists – Kenny acts as the crucial key unlocking and heightening their divergent nature through his manipulation of sonic translation.
Curry decided to hone in on his warrior-like inclinations by creating a horror-inspired world for him to submerge himself in through each track on “UNLOCKED.” Aesthetics and the world making it seem to be a natural mode of communication for Curry’s aspired visions and inherent meaning behind “UNLOCKED.” Curry created a short film to accompany the album. It features Curry and Kenny Beats in Claymation form, on a quest for missing files in which they must battle against numerous predators to retrieve them. Curry showcases through a series of wicked images, along with his borderline violent delivery of the bars that he feels as though he still must prove himself worthy as an artist.
Sonically and lyrically, the “UNLOCKED” Curry is, like in his previous work, somewhere in the atmosphere. Rules are bent, twisted, and left for dead. Rhyme schemes follow unpredictable and occasionally indiscernible patterns, that capriciously build on each other against all laws of physics. Syllables fit where they shouldn’t. References and lingo are either fabulously niche or entirely made up (but you can tell by his tone that you don’t want to be the “surfboard body ass boy with your fish tits”). Curry’s capability to affect his voice has developed so dramatically that I repeatedly checked for features and was continuously surprised to find that DMX was not credited anywhere. The nothing-is-sacred attitude extended to post-production, where vocals were further distorted, pitch shifted, and sampled beyond recognizability by Kenny.
Kenny Beats, though he’s clearly no stranger to experimentation, has a more calculated style. He demonstrates his method in the highly stylized first track, appropriately titled “Track 01.” The majority of the track is instrumental, accompanied by a tinny voiceover that introduces Curry like the unlikely protagonist of a cult-classic horror film. In the latter half of the song, Beats samples Curry’s future bars, to be unearthed later in the album– setting a tone of redemption, with Curry’s vocals being distortedly high pitched, exposing a delusional cadence. After his sonic display of beat-making bravura, Beats gracefully relinquishes the spotlight to Curry’s rapping. But even from the backseat, he finds room to defy expectations.
In “Take_it_Back_v2,” the first proper rap song of the album, Kenny reveals that he is perfectly capable of conceiving an exceptionally conventional trap beat- but only in order to subvert it. Beats come in hard and fast and drop out unexpectedly. He uses Curry’s boundless vocal abilities like a jungle gym, lifting them, dropping them, building opposing armies from adlibs and verses, and then sending them to battle.
On “Diet,” Curry’s begins with a more playfully, casual flow over a choppy, boom-bap inspired beat. Curry again references his unwavering strength, even amongst doubts from his perceived competitors.
He raps, “The man’s here, there’s no fear. Came through with no tears. I don’t cry, matter fact, I don’t lie like a bedside. To tell the truth, then I tell you what it is or what it ain’t. Please roll me up another dank, another smoke. Though I see it as the antidote to cure my daily anecdotes. I see my thoughts, it’s adios.”
Curry, who has made it clear his innate desire to abandon the reality of the world – still is able to express his need for clarity and truth amongst his dream-like illusions. The tone of the track suddenly transforms as Curry unleashes his inner ferociousness into the chorus. His more light-hearted nature to the tone of this voice is left in the dust and in its place, Curry’s voice shapeshifts into a monster-like growl. His voice sounds as if it’s quivering with madness- segueing perfectly into the second verse in which Kenny has once again synched Curry’s vocal to match that of a demon on the loose.
In Paradox, sometimes Kenny will unearth Curry’s forceful, antagonistic energy by providing him with a more peaceful, melodic beat. On the track “So Incredible,” Curry’s ability to balance his aggression with the mellow essence of the beat is astonishing. Kenny once again doesn’t fail to disappoint with his enormous capacity to excavate the strengths of each artist he teams up with. By allowing for the beat to not consume or reflect Curry’s vitality – his innate anger shines through gloriously and naturally.
And then it ends. When an album is only 17 minutes long, it’s bound to feel abrupt. But the “UNLOCKED” ending was more than that- it feels unfinished. It arrives in a whirlwind of kinetic energy and promise, and each individual song delivers on that promise, building elegantly, ending somewhere beyond its beginning, somewhere bigger. But this feeling of forwarding momentum doesn’t translate to the longer form of the album. Every subsequent song begins again at zero, a series of intense bursts, moving across instead of upwards. It’s a collaboration with incredible promise and successful results, but it still feels less than what it could be.
Curry and Kenny’s ability to feed off one another is evident – both proving their devotion to collaborating towards an artistic vision. Curry has demonstrated that it’s his animated and tireless approach to his music that renders him his power. And with Kenny’s ear for deciphering and transcribing that power – that’s when the real magic in “UNLOCKED” is discovered. Hopefully, as the transatlantic voiceover in the intro track promises, “all this has been just the beginning.”