The Frenetic Chemistry of Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats

How hip-hop's duo of the moment made an album in three days

Photo by Quinn Tucker

Denzel Curry is all energy.

Live in concert, this means mosh pits and only mosh pits. The centrepoint of all of the Carol City rapper’s live shows is “Ultimate,” the viral 2015 breakout single that’s become his signature song. When the drums kick in over top of producer Ronny J’s mangled piano loop, limbs and bodies careen together as he screams into the chaos, completely in command.

For the better part of a decade now, Curry has been one of the most explosive, passionate voices to have emerged from South Florida. Psychedelic, politically-charged, guttural, loud, and undeniably catchy all at once, he has carved out a lane for himself with his rapid-fire stories of life growing up in Miami Gardens’ Zone 3 neighborhood. Plus, he’s part of a rare group of artists, like Henry Rollins or JPEGMAFIA, who can completely thrash their vocal chords for the sake of a song without coming off as preening or self-indulgent.

Curry’s uncontainable energy is part of what drew Kenny Beats, one of rap’s most chameleonic and charismatic producers of the moment, to collaborate with him on UNLOCKED, their newly-released joint project which dropped in early February. Over the phone from Los Angeles, he’s still in awe of Curry’s magnetism, both in-studio and on stage. “I’ve known about Denzel since he was 17 years old, and once I saw him at Bonnaroo, I couldn’t fucking believe what a live performer he was.”

“A lot of artists will rap or scream over their studio recordings, and you don’t really get the full performance experience, but Curry has the crowd control of a rock band at Woodstock.”

UNLOCKED opens with a blast of Madvillain-esque punk energy, as the vintage supervillian dialogue implodes, giving way to a throbbing boom-bap pulse and another layer of scratched vocals. Effectively, this is the mood throughout the entire 20-minute project: the raucous energy of the new South Florida ragers mixed with a sleek revitalization of New York’s sample-heavy underground rap.

According to Curry, UNLOCKED was based around their shared joy in exploring the outer boundaries of their capabilities as musicians. “We needed to challenge ourselves—but it was still no challenge for us. It was just a fun, new thing to do. Creating keeps me going, you know, and I think it does for Kenny too.”

UNLOCKED’s nu-retro sonic direction is a major pivot for both artist and producer. Curry’s most recent projects Zuu and TA13OO were classic Florida records, loaded front-to-back with the frantic, syncopated flows and distorted instrumentals that brought him to fame in the middle of the 2010s.

Kenny Beats spent most of the past decade as half of the now-defunct EDM duo Loudpvck. When that project folded, he locked himself in the studio and reemerged with progressive, floor-filling trap instrumentals for everyone from Rico Nasty (Anger Management), to Key (777), to FKA Twigs and Future (“Holy Terrain”), and even Ed Sheeran (“Take Me Back to London”). Most recently, he’s become the most popular producer on YouTube with his series The Cave, where his extended universe of famous collaborators will often drop by to record impromptu, high-octane freestyles.

On paper, the two would have seemed like an obvious combination, but in practice, they found that the overlap between their trademark sounds drained their early, unreleased collaborations of their urgency. Plus, Curry needed time to move past his (understandable) frustration with Beats giving another artist a beat he thought he had claimed for his own. Now, Curry laughs when asked about the long-dead conflict. “I was mad as fuck and didn’t want to deal with him for a while. But time passed and my cousin showed me The Cave and told me I had to do an episode of my own. I did, and that got us back together in the studio last summer.”

The more diplomatic of the two, Beats never brought up this disagreement, but he did agree that the UNLOCKED sessions were a break from their previous experiences working together. “Our whole conversation that first day in November was about the new Wu-Tang documentary on HBO. We started with a drum break, I pulled up weird old movie samples for the intro, and we made “Lay_Up.m4a” and “Pyro (leak 2019)” that first day. When I played them back the next day, I thought: ‘what the fuck is this?’ I had two sessions that day with other people, and I cancelled them both and told Curry he needed to come back so we could do more.”

Curry was equally enthusiastic about the new direction: “Kenny was like ‘bruh, keep coming back, keep coming back.’ I’d go to his studio, come back with two more tracks, play them for my girl, she’d say ‘oh shit, this is fire,’ and then I’d go back to Kenny’s the next day to do it again. After three days, we had the project done.”

Curry isn’t lying about the remarkable speed of the duo’s recording process allowing them to enter, almost effortlessly, an entirely new sonic territory. On “DIET_”, he slides seamlessly into DMX’s raspy-voice lane, growling into the microphone as Beats pitch-shifts his voice to fit the lurching beat. “So.Incredible.pkg” is the most quintessential New York track on UNLOCKED, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Busta Rhymes or Nas album. Beats builds the instrumental off of punchy, sampled drums and washed-out Rhodes lines, giving Curry plenty of space to combine interpolations of glossy Puff Daddy hits with straightforward death threats.

Carrying over the nostalgic groove from “So.Incredible.pkg,” “Track07” combines the filtered low-end groove of A Tribe Called Quest’s early albums with the crisp horns that permeated so many of Pete Rock and DJ Premier’s classics. Here, Curry plays the party host, as his warped vocals wash in and out of the mix. It’s the soundtrack to a mid-1990s BBQ, as composed by two men who were barely out of infancy at the time.

“Pyro (leak 2019)” is another clear standout – it might be the closest we ever get to a Kenny Beats-chipmunk soul crossover episode. A spectral choir that sounds like it’s being played underwater washes throughout the background, while the slow-crawling drums reinforce Curry’s every lyric. The Floridan pours his rhymebook out as if his life depended on it, and delivers hands-down the best opening line on the entire project: “My bitch bad like battle rappers that make albums with no [Alchemist]”

Beats laughs when I bring this line up—it’s one of his favorites, too. He’s clearly proud of how Curry’s lyrics bring energy to a room. “No matter who I played the album for, Rick Rubin, Madlib, Ski Mask the Slump God—that line made EVERYBODY laugh. I’m playing this for people in their mid-50s and people in their early 20s, and everyone is having the same reaction. That’s how you can tell Curry is really striking a chord.”

Their frenetic recording speed was helped by the fact that both Curry and Beats are magnetic, energetic extraverts, permanently dialed up to 11. “Denzel’s personality is like he’s in the middle of the Superbowl at all times. He’s so hype, he’s got so much passion and energy, and he’ll put anything on the line to get his point across,” Beats explains excitedly when talking about the younger rapper. Curry says the exact same about his counterpart: “Kenny’s just as animated as I am. We’ll goof off in the studio, but when we get to work, we get to work and we get shit done. That’s how it was, and why we were able to do this whole project in three days.”

The track titles on UNLOCKED are a sly nod to the mid-’00s piracy era of the music industry. Before streaming and Soundcloud swallowed the music industry whole,  The Pirate Bay and its sketchier predecessor LimeWire were must-haves for any industrious young person looking to reload their iPods with brand-new MP3s. More often than not, the downloads would come with unpolished name like “Take_it_Back_v2,” “Pyro (leak 2019),” and “So.Incredible.pkg” – to name just a few of the many memorable track titles on UNLOCKED.

According to Curry, this naming scheme was a premature middle finger to critics. “We made this project in three days, and we knew critics were going to say ‘oh, it doesn’t sound finished, blah, blah, blah.’ We wanted to say ‘shut the fuck up’ before they even had the chance to say it, so we made our track names look like our session file names or some shit you’d get when you pirate music.” They got their point across: on repeated listens, UNLOCKED’s deliberate rawness feels like a feature, not a drawback.

Despite the multi-faceted rollout, which included the pair getting into a fake spat, leaking their project, and then releasing a short movie slash music video where the two transmogrify themselves inside a series of animated cartoons, UNLOCKED avoids gimmick entirely. Made at breakneck pace and stripped of any excess, it’s a pure exercise in experimentation by two technicians who are at the peak of their abilities and know it.

Curry’s main takeaway from the collaboration is that while there’s value in honing his work to perfection, his first instinct is usually the right and most exciting one. “I knew me and Kenny were good, but I didn’t know that we were good enough to make an album in three days. We didn’t plan it, it was just on the fly. We figured out the sound, how we wanted to package it, everything all at once.”

For Beats, UNLOCKED symbolizes the way that creative discomfort and uncertainty can be channeled into urgent, immediate art. “The number one selling-solo piano album of all time is Keith’s Jarrett’s Köln Concert, and that was played on a broken, detuned piano,” he muses. “The greatest piano album of all time is on a broken instrument, you see what I’m saying? Sometimes it takes that discomfort to break through. When you don’t know where you’re going, where you can end up is boundless.”