Not all collaborations are created equal. Still, pairing up Denzel Curry with Kenny Beats makes oodles of sense. On paper, they’re two of contemporary hip-hop’s most consistent and prolific artists. Their volumes of output rarely result in a drop off in quality. Their sounds are distinct, and their creative appetites are high. In practice, as we learned this past Friday, February 7, with the release of their first collaborative project, UNLOCKED, they are a supercharged duo teeming with life and ballistic spirit.
At the risk of sounding banal, Zel is genuinely “unlocked” from song to song across UNLOCKED. His energy plumes out of him. Screams and hard-edged raps fuse into titanium bars. Denzel’s delivery on tracks like “Take_it_Back_v2” and “DIET_” annihilate Kenny’s outstanding, glitchy, and glorious production. The album, made in just 72 hours, feels the furthest thing from slapdash. Neither Kenny nor Zel make a misstep. The unevenness of a rushed collaboration is nowhere to be found. Instead, we have eight outstanding musical moments, each celebrating the volatile art of rap music.
“Take_it_Back_v2” morphs and distorts. “‘Cosmic.m4a’” induces neck-breaking head nods. Denzel’s snarling delivery leaves a “gauge-sized hole” in our chests. “Pyro (leak 2019)” plods forward with a destructive force. The fragmented feel of the project—there’s only one song over three minutes, and three songs under two minutes—gives way to a feeling of devastation. UNLOCKED takes place in a ruined city, skyscrapers decimated by Denzel’s raps and Kenny’s beats. Too, the short tracks speak to the pair’s aversion to dallying. We imagine them spriting from song to song, furiously creating something greater than the two could have ever imagined.
The short time it took the pair to create UNLOCKED speaks to Denzel and Kenny’s natural creative frenzy. Having a shut-in to create through the limitation of a 72-hour window places an attractive pressure on the artists. Suddenly, every moment counts. Every punch-in could be the punch-in. Every beat Kenny programs, every sample he chops has the potential to be the one. UNLOCKED is an exercise in gut and viscera. Sometimes, following your gut instinct is the best way to make music.
Of course, this frenzy extends beyond the timing. Consider how the pair didn’t bother to clean up the track titles. From this decision, we can gather Kenny’s “DOTS” motto was in full effect during creation. “Take_it_Back_v2” only had two versions before the duo decided they had nailed it, and then it was time to move on. “Track 01” and “Track07” have no names—there must not have been time. The 72-hour-long session must have been about creating, creating, creating. Everything else, all the shiny and buttoned up externalities, was secondary. Truly, why waste time on names when the songs speak for themselves?
Do not mistake UNLOCKED for an attempt to deconstruct the form of the album, though. Their achievement here is much greater: Kenny and Zel strip away the curtain on creativity altogether. Think of the rollout, how they staged an obviously fake beef in the lead up to their project’s short animated film. Again, Kenny’s “DOTS” motto stepped in to stop the pair from plotting too hard. Instead, we got the music and the duo’s personalities front and center. The video drop was sudden. The fake beef was spastic. And yet, we loved it. They captured our attention because their intentions were pure. Most importantly: The music was dope.
Therein lies the rub: Creating from your gut only works if you have reached a place in your career where the space between draft and final product is razor-thin. UNLOCKED cements Kenny and Zel in that coveted category. Any producer and rapper can lock themselves away for three days and come out with eight songs. I could make eight songs in three days, but what would they sound like? The sheer quality of UNLOCKED speaks to Kenny Beats and Denzel Curry being musicians to their cores. They bleed music. Denzel turns your brain to Gushers with his wordplay; Kenny breaks your conception of arrangement with his productions.
UNLOCKED succeeds because it is a flurry of sounds, shapes, textures, and motherfucking raps from two of hip-hop’s brightest. UNLOCKED succeeds because it does not take itself too seriously. From its ideation to its rollout, Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats privileged process over appearance. They wanted this one in our hands as quickly as they got it off in the studio. We admire the pair for their creative prowess, but we should be admiring them for their eagerness to break the boundaries of creativity as we understand it.
The creative frenzy resulting in UNLOCKED is thrilling to witness. There may be rules to this shit: How to prep a project, how to release it, how to market it, but… Rules be damned—Denzel and Kenny are too good for your rules.