Josh Svetz suddenly has the urge to go read Uzumaki Manga.
One random day in the summer of 2019, Denzel Curry pulls up to Kenny Beats’ studio in Burbank to appear on The Cave, a show where the producer invites his many rapper friends to create an original freestyle using beats he tailors to whatever crazy idea they have in their head.
Curry enters the room charged up. “I just cleaned my whole house,” boasts the Dade County-raised rapper as he paces the Greenwich-bred producer’s setup. At first, Kenny can’t even handle his Spongebob-esque energy. But after a quick bong hit by Kenny and a YouTube search of Ceddy “The Sumo Rapper” Bu (RIP) to use as a sample, the two get to business. “I just came in here to make some hard-ass shit. A lot of Wu-Tang shit, Ol’ Dirty Bastard type shit,” Curry proclaims as he leans back and forth in Kenny’s black leather chair.
The production reflects the Carol City Superstar request: a RZA-type beat fit for a Funkmaster Flex freestyle. Curry is excellent, spitting ferociously, dropping Wu-Tang references, and changing his flow like he’s fast-forwarding through TiVo. But the most crucial part of this whole episode is an easy-to-miss but nonchalant line near the end. As Kenny daps up Denzel, he quietly says, “We about to make songs.” The result of this short exchange is the genesis of their collaborative LP Unlocked.
Dreamed up in a manic 72 hours after filming Denzel’s aforementioned freestyle, the project’s release came accompanied by a short film. The Youtube short is a beautifully-animated, self-referential acid trip, a product of two minds raised on Adult Swim. The short combines distinct styles of animation with the millennial affinity for platformers like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot. None of this is necessary to enjoy the project. Coming off the heels of another surprise release, the anarchic callback to Rvidxr Klvn, Lo-Fi Cloud Rap and Memphis Horrorcore, 13LOOD 1N + 13LOOD OUT, the rap shapeshifter’s latest channels the energy of Wu-Tang Clan and other legendary hardcore rappers. Kenny dials up the chaos, crafting production that puts respect on the Toonami/Adult Swim Saturday night cartoon block many kids in his generation grew up watching. Denzel adopts and morphs the flow of several late 90s/early 00s legends of rap, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, DMX and Busta Rhymes, combining to pay tribute to the time period of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Toonami Tom.
On “Pyro,” ZXLTRXN throws out an unhinged singing scream like he was possessed by the scabrous ghost of ODB, while “DIET_.” has him breaking out into a deranged growl reminiscent of DMX; you half expect Denzel to start barking. At one point during “‘Cosmic.m4a,’” he hits a Busta Rhymes “Woo-Hah” inflection with precision. The South Florida lyricist fits into the lineage of these greats with his deranged energy, idiosyncratic nature, and ability to blend melody with a guttural cadence.
But Curry doesn’t always rap like he’s trying to free himself from a straitjacket. He uses Unlocked as a technical showcase, aiming to silence any detractors that still doubt his abilities. Take “So.Incredible.pkg,” where he implements flow that would fit snug on a Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth record. For Curry, Unlocked is another bar to surpass. Throughout his career, he’s prided himself on reinvention and versatility, while still being able to make whatever rap style he chooses his own. By taking on not just New York boom-bap, but also hardcore melodic rap, he’s ascended to a level where he can pay homage to his influences without biting their style. While TA1300 showed his advanced writing skills, and ZUU proved he could specialize his work to one distinct sound, Unlocked proves his technical prowess has leveled up past Super Saiyan and is on the brink of Ultra Instinct.
“‘Cosmic.m4a’” sounds like it could have been heard during a fight in Cowboy Bebop, while “Lay_Up.m4a” features eerie instrumentals you’d expect to hear in a demented haunted house. A few tracks feel more like freestyle improvisations for a web series than two artists locked into a studio for months and experimenting until they discover a new form. But ultimately, the album accomplishes its goal. It taps into nostalgia without patronizing its audience. Curry uses the throwback flows of New York legends to reveal more about his influences and put on a rap clinic. But even if Denzel and Kenny don’t go too far out of their comfort zones, it’s a visceral experience — one that seems like a precursor to a legitimate classic, like the Namek Saga before the Frieza saga. Maybe the sequel will wind up being the Cell Games.