Denzel Curry, Kenny Beats release nostalgic yet futuristic EP ‘Unlocked’

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Rapper Denzel Curry has been on a roll since 2015, releasing album after album with minimal breaks in between. Just when fans believed he was finally stepping away from new music, the artist dropped an eight-song EP, titled Unlocked, on Feb. 7. Curry worked primarily with producer Kenny Beats, who has famously produced music for Gucci Mane, Dominic Fike and Rico Nasty among many others.

Beats, who tailors his production to artist requests, showcases his instrumental chops aligned with Curry’s old-school, video game-themed EP, referenced by the title. To complete the experience, all of the song titles are even stylized like computer files. Unlocked is hip-hop geek heaven, paying homage to the legendary artists of the 1990s and early 2000s while fueling every Nintendo 64-fueled fantasy. The EP even follows the release of a short animated film where Curry and Beats battle villains to recover leaked audio files. Most of the songs are brief, but immensely effective in their composition and ability to draw listeners into their respective storylines.

Unlocked begins with a cryptic voice-over to set the mood for the record. Then, Curry launches into “Take_it_Back_v2,” a production of traditional hip-hop with a simple backbeat. Beats’ toned-down instrumentals allow the spotlight to shine on Curry’s vocals and lyrics, which are refined yet carefree. The different inflections of Curry’s voice as he lyrically acts out game sequences reinforce the story’s unfolding, but the track’s ending is the best part, featuring a Western movie-sounding excerpt from the soundtrack of “Shake Hands with Danger,” a construction safety training film from 1980. It’s a strange addition, but it somehow fits so well.

“Lay_Up.m4a” builds on the previous track, sporting harder beats and a powerful message. Curry raps about his rise to fame and the assertion of his prowess, rapping, “Grow the fro for black power/ Denzel, in my final hour I will never cower.” This song is also where Beats begins to take hold of the reins and steer the music in a dark, bass-heavy manner with occasional synths to add another level of depth.

Curry’s rap finesse is proudly displayed on “DIET_,” a song that flows with ease and seems as though it came naturally to both Curry and Beats in its production stages. Curry’s aggressive, energetic raps, along with the driving but controlled beat, make it a standout track. It’s a song intended to be the highlight, based solely on its swagger and confidence, but is ultimately outshined by the final two tracks, “Track07” and “ ‘Cosmic’.m4a.”

“Track07” boasts a funky beat, the perfect background music for a final boss battle. It features a few lyrics from the previous song, “So.Incredible.pkg,” adding to the record’s cohesiveness but also throwing listeners a curveball with the repeated lyrics.

The record ends with “ ‘Cosmic’.m4a,” a truly out-of-this-world song. It’s the definition of elevated hip-hop, a speculative track with psychedelic tones. Curry references the video game Mortal Kombat in the lyrics, intending for this song to be the total knockout of the EP. It’s trippy — a way to finish the EP with a bang.

Unlocked is a quick but deep journey through some of the 1990s’ best parts. Each song represents an intricate level where Curry figuratively battles some sort of villain as he moves through his career. It possesses the characteristics of a modern concept album without becoming too abstract for easy listening. Unlocked is high quality, down to the beautifully futuristic, dystopian album art. It wouldn’t pack the punch it does without Beats laying down perfectly chosen grooves under each track, and both he and Curry clearly played to their strengths.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].