Photo via pitchfork.com

4.5 stars

It’s hard to find two bigger crowd-pleasers than Florida rapper Denzel Curry and Atlanta producer Kenny Beats. Both have had a busy and profitable last couple years with Curry’s “Ta13oo” in 2018 and “zuu” in 2019 both garnering deserved critical and commercial success. Kenny Beats has been working hard in his “cave” with a plethora of artists, from Vince Staples to Rico Nasty, Danny Brown and Thundercat. He’s been the featured producer on several big-name albums over the last couple years and his YouTube Series “The Cave” has allowed for meetups and jam sessions with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. That’s essentially how this album came to be, with Curry going on Kenny’s show and the two spending some quality studio time together. The result? The finest 17-minute package of rap music this year, called “Unlocked.”

The synergy at play between Curry’s bars and Kenny’s production is great. The samples and drum kit Kenny plays with on the album are very reminiscent of Doom’s “MMM Food,” each sample placement is perfectly timed and the flow between his production and Curry’s lyrics is seamless. For an album with a run time of 17 minutes, it’s filled with an obscene amount of exciting and jaw-dropping moments. The last track “‘Cosmic’.m4a” has a moment where Curry spits, “You’re shooting in VR / we’ve got guns…” and then the sample steps in and finishes the line, “In reality.” While that is a technique that occurs often in rap, the sheer mastery at play is difficult to find a contemporary parallel to. The album is riddled with dynamite like that. Curry is telling you the entire time that everyone else is hysterical while he is historical, and it keeps getting harder to argue with that.

Curry’s hooks are sharp. The album does a good job revisiting them throughout, marrying them with autotune while slowing down and speeding up Curry’s voice. It gives you time to digest everything. When Curry goes into his first hook on the second track “Take_it_Back_v2,” he comes in fast and furious with, “Still trying to raise the charts so I’m not pushing shopping carts.” His raps are rife with references to his time in Carol City, historical figures, movies and videogames. There’s something sprinkled in for everybody, whether it’s a line about Thanos or Rosa Parks.

Kenny’s overall instrumentation on the project is like an angry computer, something The Decepticons would listen to. The 808s are pounding while the melodies on some of the tracks are beautiful. The bassline on the almost-completely instrumental, “Track07” lulls you into the nostalgic, cyberspace tone before Curry comes in and brings you back to reality.

In its presentation, from its cover art to its song titles, it is a throwback to the old internet. If it has one drawback it is the song titles which, when looked at as part of the album, are great and give it the “Dirty Computer” downloaded music vibe, but make it hard to remember individual song titles. With a title like “Track07,” it might be hard to remember just what track that was. Still, it’s a very deliberate design choice and, for the most part, it works. “Unlocked” is a fun, victory lap of a record from two of the greatest names in contemporary hip-hop. There is no dead air; there is no wasted time. It is immensely enjoyable.