When’s the last time you listened to an album all the way through? My guess is a few of you will say “today”, a few more will say “some time last year”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I got a couple of chuckles. “Yeah, albums.” Yeah, those. Those carefully crafted opuses that put a selection of tracks together based on taste, creative energy or, quite possibly, the simple fact that these tracks were all made at a similar time.
I don’t blame you if you don’t listen to albums. Playlists, Spotify’s automatic queue and (thank God) DJ EZ’s continued existence mean that the idea of an album as a cohesive listening experience might be starting to fall by the wayside. And from the listeners standpoint, that’s fair enough.
With ‘Unlocked’, however, Kenny Beats and Denzel Curry appear to look to buck the trend of album irrelevancy, presenting a 21st century evolution of the format with quick tracks, ear-catching sounds and eye-grabbing visuals perfect for the busy life and short attention span, when everything on and off-line is vying for attention.
It’s not the first hip hop album to take this quick-track approach. Jazz Spastiks’ aptly-named 2014 offering The Product hits a similar vein, but sticks to a more typical breaks n jazz sound with an album cover that says little. Meanwhile, ‘Unlocked’ hits right on the nose of some core issues we see today – dodgy news sources, anonymous misinformation and distortions of reality – with a cohesive aesthetic that permeates everything from the lyrics to the marketing.
I’d hate to approach this like some kind of historical-context English-lit-student “ooh look, I can analyse stuff” perspective though. If I went that route I would talk about how its identity-bending cartoon visuals and eerie processing perfectly reflects the world of deepfakes, political distortion and misinformation that we see (or don’t see) today. I could talk about how the 90s imagery from the time of the origins of the web is a parable of how this great resource has become a source of hatred and uncertainty, or I could talk about how even the marketing – a half-fake twitter beef that sets up the story of the album – ties into the general narrative of questioning our assumptions about online identity.
But like I said, I don’t want to come at it from that point of view. Because when I found this album it was 2am and I was scrolling through bandcamp. And my first thought on hearing it, staring at the psychedelic cover and vaguely nodding my had with a kind of slack-jawed euphoria was, with every word in the English language at my disposal, “damn, this is good”. So I’m going to urge you to just watch and listen to the album. Seriously, it’s great.
The first thing that caught me about Unlocked was how it seemed to splice an old-school 90s vibe with an early 2000s kids-with-samplers aesthetic. Curry’s flow has a Wu-Twang to it that’s set against a backdrop of digitally lo-fi samples and chopped computer noises, like mouse clicks and startup sounds. Kenny’s beats have a futuristic sci-fi feel to them, and the rhythms, samples and lo-fi aesthetic make the album feel like something inspired by the 90s, made in the mid 2000s and visualised as music of the future. It feels like futuristic nostalgia. Or nostalgic futurism. Take your pick.
Either way it sounds unlike anything else I’ve heard. It’s as if they took reality, ran it through the kind of analog-to-digital converter you might find in Kenny’s studio, and fed it back to us. Which, given how much time we’re spending inside, is how a lot of us see the world these days. The twisted voices and erratic sampling lends it a dark, chaotic undertone that touched a cord on my first listen. The detail in the album is immense. I’ve listened through many times, and each time something new jumps out at me from the beat or the lyrics.
Kenny and Curry seem to have the same kind of synergy that their visual and audio productions have. Listening to both artists’ back catalogues, I don’t hear a single other collaboration that has this level of cohesion. Similarly, Kenny’s instrumental tracks are great on their own – they were what really caught me on first listen – but Curry over the top takes it to the next level in a way not every rapper could do, with a flow that can either bounce pleasantly off your ears or, if you listen closely, make you think and draw you further into the album’s world.
Extra credit has to go to Kenny, though. The way he works with Curry’s voice on the beat, twisting it, chopping it, shifting the pitches – it adds to the cohesivity and immersion of the whole experience. And “immersive experience” is what this whole album feels like. Everything from the music to the marketing creates a single alternative reality to draw you in and fuel your 3am paranoia.
With ‘Unlocked’, Curry and Kenny seem to have made something perfectly designed for the digital age, an age where our attention is sought from thousands of posts, releases and adverts every day. With poise and a keen aesthetic eye, Curry and Kenny slaughter their way through eight tracks of sampled mayhem, each sitting at around two minutes long and dripping with 90s vibes and digital paranoia. An unapologetic computer-made aesthetic cuts through the nonsense instantly – this is a digital album for a digital age. No nonsense. No filler. Just good tunes and good visuals.
The Artwork Behind ‘Unlocked’
As the project was coming together in the studio, Denzel Curry decided he also wanted to create a visual counterpart to the album. Rather than stop at an edgy album cover and merch, however, Curry and Beats went on to create a short film that would feature all of the songs from ‘Unlocked’.
Taking the lead on this half of the project, Curry spent his time in the studio with Kenny drafting the narrative for the film while recording his rap verses. Sending the producer drawings, notes, ideas, and storyboards, Curry was eager to get his artistic vision across to Beats throughout the production process of ‘Unlocked’. Beats admitted he wasn’t sure about the idea at first, but the moment Curry’s ideas began to come together visually marked a turning point.
With ‘Unlocked’ channelling the sounds of nineties rap culture, Curry wanted to similarly convey other elements of nineties nostalgia in the visual elements of ‘Unlocked’. Looking to the cartoons, anime, comics, and manga he grew up with, Curry was able to come up with a narrative straight out of a Cartoon Network show – with all the creepy undertones that defined the era.
An initial point of influence was British virtual band, Gorillaz. Curry was drawn to the idea of having animated characters set within a fictional universe to promote songs, and so wanted to use this as the base concept for ‘Unlocked’. Using a cartoon persona and narrative to supplement the music, Curry could similarly up the engagement levels of his new project by making it dual vehicle for both listening and watching.
The short film follows Curry and Beats as they enter into multiple cartoon realms in a bid to retrieve the missing file tracks that comprise ‘Unlocked’. Each track is located in a different world, and it’s up to the duo to navigate them in order to succeed in their quest.
The animation for each world is based on the sound of the specific track, meaning that each track has its own unique visual component and cartoon style. These animations also feature various references to cartoons and anime chosen by Curry, again referencing a wealth of influences and childhood nostalgia.
For Take_it_Back_v2, Curry wanted to expand on the darker, more aggressive tone of the track. The rapper sites Junji Ito’s horror manga series, Uzumaki, which was released in the late nineties. This section of the music video channels multiple manga aesthetics, from the use of stereotypes in Japanese horror such as tentacle monsters and demon schoolgirls, to a black and white colour palette reminiscent of printed manga. The result is a universe that drops fans into the deep end with cartoon nostalgia and cult references.
In an interview with Complex News, Curry indicated how the Uzumaki came to mind: “We had to use Uzumaki because it’s in your face – it’s dark, it’s gritty… it creeps in.”
The final track of the album, ‘Cosmic’.m4a, further explores Curry’s interest in Japanese pop culture, referencing anime fight scenes to match the feel of the track (dubbed “a fight track from a movie” by Curry) and trigger the climax of the album. Curry again indicated that he had a clear influence for this world: Shinichirō Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.
Other identifiable references are Samurai Jack, Robot Chicken, Scooby Doo, Whacky Races, and Disney – to name a few! Have a watch and see what you can spot!
Does Art Make the Album?
As indicated, ‘Unlocked’ pays homage to many of the influences Curry grew up with. These come together in a clash of child-like familiarity and a heavier, more mature beat – all wrapped up in a pretty cartoon bow.
Curry and Beats keep up a consistency of concept with ‘Unlocked’, pushing their project to be fun and exciting in every aspect. “Unhinged hip-hop personalities” are visualised through gritty, animated renderings and whacky narratives. Tracks are manipulated to blend Curry’s normal vocals with different pitches, from chipmunk high to thunder deep, enriching the cartoon concept of the project.
The album cover for ‘Unlocked’ similarly follows this concept, showing a scene straight from the cover of a comic book.
Setting cartoon personas of Curry and Beats in a burning city, the artwork ties nicely into the aesthetics of the ‘Unlocked’ short film while maintaining a distinct drawing style by blending together elements of cartoon, comic, and graffiti – playing with the idea that the physical album itself is yet another animated world for fans to view and investigate.
The artwork was created by Chris Wilson, artist and founder of Lowbrim Studio, who has previously worked with musicians to create animated videos – see the music videos for Cherry Flavoured and Hell or High Water by The Neighbourhood, for example.
Set in a collapsing cityscape, the artwork shows a typical scene of urban destruction that follows the fights and battles featured in comics. With a burning orange sky acting as background to the scene, the buildings surrounding Curry and Beats are shown on the verge of complete ruin with smashed windows and crumbling brickwork. Wilson implements a narrative in the scene, however, with the sea of purple goop. To the left of the image a pair of eyes can be seen peeking out of the goop – and if comic books have taught us anything, it’s our ability to recognise a villain when we see one. This character sets this new universe more securely in the realm of superheroes and supervillains.
Curry is sat front and centre within this urban chaos, inhabiting a ghost-like character wielding radioactive green fire. Positioned in a classic superhero pose – just look at Spiderman or The Hulk – Curry’s character appears every bit the powerful and aggressive force that he’s shown to be through his rapping skill.
Wilson builds on this by posing Curry in the act of throwing a punch – but rather than directed at a villain, it is the viewer who is one the receiving end. Our proximity to Curry places us within direct firing range of the rapper’s attack, solidifying the viewer’s role in the narrative of ‘Unlocked’. The interaction of fans with Curry’s work is key to facilitating the creation of longevity of his artistic vision. The act of punching also creates a forewarning for those about to experience the album: “Proceed with caution, this is going to have an impact.” An interesting point of note here is how Wilson translates Curry’s fame for clever wordplay into a visual counterpart with this rendering of the rapper.
While Curry appears central in the image, Beats is depicted to the side, back to the viewer and staring into his laptop. Beats fits a different character type to Curry; rather than a typical hero or antihero, Beats more resembles the “Hacker” who guides and supports the hero through their attack strategy. Distanced from the viewer and physically connected to a mass of machinery resembling equipment found in the studio, it is emphasised that Beats plays more of a background role in the universe Curry has created.
Another noteworthy aspect of the artwork is its resemblance to the reflection of a convex mirror. While mirrors in general have been linked to supernatural folklore and magic since the Middle Ages, convex mirrors are a slightly special case in artworks.
With the ability to warp a reflection to pinpoint the centre of the image, a convex mirror has been used in painting as vanitas symbol (something to remind someone viewing an image of their mortality and the worthlessness of material pleasures). By distorting the reflected image, a convex mirror especially was meant to enable viewers to meditate on these distortions and place them in connection with their own reality – in other words, it was to make people appreciate their spiritual values rather than their material ones.
When put into the context of the narrative Curry and Beats have created with ‘Unlocked’, this visual illusion in the artwork only emphasises the premise of a virtual reality outside of our own.
But this also brings in another interesting concept.
The ending of the ‘Unlocked’ music video sees Curry and Beats defeated by hackers posing as alternate versions of themselves. While the real Curry and Beats are left in the virtual realm, it is their doppelgangers who are released into the real world and supposedly now inhabit Curry and Beats’ physical bodies. With this in mind, the altered reflection of reality seen in the album artwork becomes another layer of narrative in the ‘Unlocked’ story – one which sees these alternate versions of Curry and Beats running amok and causing havoc in the physical world.
This could also explain the choice to obscure and turn away Curry and Beats’ faces in the artwork; as a means of hiding their true identities. We can’t see their faces fully, but assume these characters are Curry and Beats when in fact they could just be imposters.
How’s that for a brain-basher?
The overall image is striking enough to catch the attention of anyone who grew up watching cartoons or reading comic books, encouraging a familiarity that is strong enough to draw people in on its own.
Check out ‘Unlocked’ below:
Written by Oskar Smith and Charlie Colville.
Illustrated by Sanni Pyhänniska.
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