Never underestimate the power of the odd couple. Whether used in the name of sitcom hijinks, to bridge the gap between genres, or to patch over emerging generational rifts, no shortage of magic can manifest when previously unaligned powers find themselves on a collision course. Sharing little more than a penchant for turning modern-day hip-hop on its axis, the magnetic chemistry that radiated from Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats during the former’s visit to The Cave has been harnessed and extrapolated in phenomenal ways on UNLOCKED. Much like he has with an assortment of artists including Key! Rico Nasty and Vince Staples, Kenny has tapped into Denzel’s distinct brand of South Florida hip-hop and merged their sounds accordingly. Arriving through a deceptive fog of fake beef and strategic posts, the finished product is a team-up of seismic proportions that recalls a new-age Preemo & Royce, Gibbs & Madlib or, with its appropriation of samples from all obscure corners of instrumentation and infomercials, Madvillainy itself.
Launched in conjunction with a short film that displayed the pair’s untapped comedic range, the duo satirized the issue of leaks and the all-too-real plight of making “$4 from 2 million streams” before being plunged into a world of cyber-psychedelia. Vivid, disorienting and prone to lightning-quick transitions, this stop-motion, anime, and Adult Swim-indebted visual is the perfect accompaniment for a project practically hemorrhaging with creativity. Opening in disorienting fashion as a narrator rhymes off antiquated rhetoric about an unspecified mental condition and “a negative phase,” the arrival of “Take_it_Back_v2” quickly makes it known that the titular unlocking isn’t a reference to any technology, but rather the limitless ingenuity of their brains.
Setting off in the realm of menacing, retro-futuristic boom-bap, the track establishes some of the key traits that’ll recur throughout the EP’s duration. Flitting from feeling manic to meticulously constructed on a dime, Denzel dual-wields odes to Bubba Sparxx and Rosa Parks in a way that only he could, all while embracing enough vocal manipulation to become a one-man posse cut. Exemplified from the moment that he veers between a dirty-south inspired, Screwed Up Click bark to a piercing high-pitched holler, Denzel’s willingness to be guided by Kenny’s unconventional borders are proof that they’re relishing the act of bouncing off one another.
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On Zel’s part, he’s rhyming in a way that feels instinctual and immediate. Just as he did during the construction of 2019’s ZUU, it seems that Curry is adhering to his new teammates’ personal mantra of “don’t overthink shit” and allowing the poeticisms to present themselves without any agony. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to his references, Denzel juggles nods to Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and GTA V in the space of three bars on “Lay_Up.m4a” before rebuffing the point A to point B nature of traditional music industry models: “Why I gotta go on tour to show that I’m goin’ through stages?” Presenting a thrilling checkpoint between the old and new, Denzel takes the aggression that’s been running through his veins since the days of 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms and uses it to elevate the abrasive “DIET_.” Sounding like the genetically mutated missing link between DMX and Zillakami, the gradually increasing tension between verse and chorus displays both parties’ range in stark clarity.
Meanwhile, Kenny’s prolific run over the past few years carries on without compromising on quality or scope. If anything, a common thread between much of UNLOCKED’s production would be the use of woozy textures and the inevitable return to lucidness by way of thudding percussion. What sets Kenny apart as such a compelling beatmaker is his nonchalance when it comes to disrupting the listener with a funk bassline here or a squalling industrial clatter there. A boundaryless approach that was likely adapted from his time within the hyperactive world of EDM as one half of Loudpvck, Kenny’s growing stature as one of hip-hop’s most entrusted producers has only emboldened him further. With only minimal assistance from Denzel, the fascinating sonic world of “Track07” makes a strong case for Kenny heeding the example of LA beat scene pioneers such as Flying Lotus, Ras G or Samiyam and producing a standalone body of work of his own.
Concluding with the blistering, bass-heavy assault of “Cosmic.M4A”, the narration’s final concession of “we did everything in the world to exterminate them but, ha, no apparent luck” is fitting when you consider how both Denzel and Kenny have balked at mainstream-mandated expectations or conduct wherever possible. Despite its 18-minute runtime, this project doesn’t feel disposable. Whether it’s Zeltron’s impeccable wordplay or the adventurousness of Kenny’s instrumentals, there’s plenty to be entranced by and unpack in greater detail. They aren’t reinventing the wheel and had no aspirations of doing so. Instead, UNLOCKED caps off another quietly prolific off-season for Denzel amid giving Kenny room to showcase his work ethic and near-maniacal creativity. Far more than a joyless display of virtuosity from two of the best in their fields, what makes UNLOCKED so compelling is the inescapable sense of fun that comes hardwired into it.