Before there was Unlocked, Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ forceful new album, there was a fake beef. There were threats made on Twitter and Instagram Live arguments that quickly went viral, as fans wondered what had happened between the two artists to make Denzel want to beat Kenny’s ass. Then, just hours later, they delivered the surprise project, an 18-minute journey into a world different from anything we’ve ever heard from either artist.
For Denzel and Kenny, the fake beef was a way to see what people “really care about” and play on people’s short attention spans online, Kenny says. But it also mirrored real-life: Early on in their relationship, Kenny gave away a beat Denzel had already used to another artist. After not speaking for almost a year, they reconciled, and Denzel ended up doing an episode of Kenny’s YouTube show, The Cave. They spent the following 72 hours making the songs that would become Unlocked.
Over the course of the album’s eight tracks, Kenny references seminal Madlib and Alchemist productions, while Denzel digs into his dynamic bag to channel the aggression of DMX and the vividness of Wu-Tang’s discography. Still, the project sounds like an augmented form of each artist, and they’ve earned the support of their influences and peers. Madlib gave it the nod of approval, Smino told Kenny it was the best thing he ever made, and Billie Eilish told Denzel it was her favorite out of all of his projects.
In person, Denzel and Kenny have a Step Brothers-like dynamic, interrupting each other with constant roasts and finishing each other’s sentences when they realize they’re actually trying to make the same point in their own ways. At a vegan Mexican restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, they discussed their mutual love of Stones Throw Records, the animated universe Denzel thought up in the studio, and how they were able to get through their disagreement to make the best music possible together.
How did you two first meet each other?
Kenny: Somebody put us in the studio together in Atlanta and said we should work in 2018. I remember going to the studio, making a hard ass song, getting back another day and making a hard ass song, getting together in L.A. and making a hard ass song, but really never making anything that made either one of us shook.
Denzel: We had a song called “Spade” that was hard but it wasn’t breaking any boundaries or setting any trends. We were just going off of what we knew.
Kenny: After two years of knowing each other, we did The Cave [Kenny Beats’ YouTube show], and then we did this project the week after. It’s just a lesson that you might not get with someone the first time, or the first couple years even, and make what y’all are capable of but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
For me, if I meet someone a couple times, and we make shit that’s anything but great, I usually lose interest and momentum to keep booking those sessions. Denzel is someone I’m such a fan of that I’m always gonna be paying attention to what he’s doing. We just kept getting in, and this time we tried to just do anything but what we had done every other time.
How familiar were you with each other’s catalogs before all that?
Denzel: Mark [Denzel Curry’s manager] puts me on to most music. When he was telling me about Kenny Beats, he was playing the 777 project with KEY! and that shit was hard. Then I started hearing “Foot Fungus” and the stuff he was doing with Ski Mask, and I was like, “This shit is crazy.” When we met up, Kenny was like, “Bro, I’ve been listening to you since Raider Klan.” He thought I was an older dude, and I was like 23.
Kenny: I didn’t realize he was like 17 when we all started finding out about him. I had been listening to him since “Threatz.” That song was kind of the introduction to everything South Florida. I didn’t know who Yung Simmie was, I didn’t know who Ronny J was. It was like, "Who the fuck are these kids with this energy and this sound?" I had just moved to L.A. at the time, around 2013, and every single person was talking about that song.
I just assumed he was my age, I’m 28, and it wasn’t until we were in the studio recently doing shit for this project that I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been listening to you since you were in high school.”
"It’s only so many times you can do the Raider Klan shit over and over again. There’s not too many times where you can really start fresh and do something new." - Denzel Curry
And when did you two decide to actually make this project together?
Denzel: When it came down to doing Unlocked, I would say it took a lot of things to lead up to that point. I think I had to be mature, and be willing to stray away from a sound I was already good at. It’s only so many times you can do the Raider Klan shit over and over again. There’s not too many times where you can really start fresh and do something new. That’s what Kenny was bringing to the table.
This shit really would have never went down like that, though, because me and Kenny had pressure. We had altercations with each other because he gave a beat of mine away to another rapper. I’m not gonna say the rapper—
Kenny: Young Thug.
Denzel: I was mad as fuck.
Kenny: It was one of the songs we had worked on like 10 months previously for ZUU. When you’re a producer, your mindset is that that’s the food in your mouth. You have a beat that some artist has had for a year and nothing happens with it. Then you’re in the studio with an artist and you have that beat on your computer. I threw those rules out the window a long time ago.
Denzel: I sent you that shit. You know I sent you that shit.
Kenny: Shut up.
Denzel: That was like a real altercation.
Kenny: He hit me back and literally said, “Cool, fuck it, we don’t need to work with each other.”
Denzel: I spazzed on him so crazy. But me and Kenny are lowkey the same n***a. We both take our art serious and if somebody ain’t doing something with it, we move on. This was the only thing where I wish you didn’t move on to the next thing because I actually got it done. That’s what I was hot about.
How did you two get through that?
Kenny: That left us in a position of not being friends for a good period of time. There was no back and forth.
Denzel: It was like anti-Kenny Beats, anti-Denzel Curry.
Kenny: I wasn’t as anti because I knew if anyone had the fault it was me. At the same time, it’s something that goes on all the time and it never gets to this level. I just felt bad that we never made the music that I felt like we were capable of making, and we ended with this weird business-related bullshit.
Denzel: Then people kept telling me about The Cave. I was like, “What is it? A bunch of n***as just chillin’?” So I seen the Freddie Gibbs episode, and I was like, “Wait a minute, this beat is hard. I could easily snap on this.”
Kenny: I get a call from Denzel like, “That Freddie Gibbs shit kinda hard.” I took that as like this is him allowing me to apologize. We started talking on text, everything got cool, and he came and did The Cave. That day, I was like, “Stick around, let’s cook up.” Everything fell to the wayside from there ‘cause we kinda realized—
Denzel: We wasn’t making the stuff we were supposed to make back then. When we were in his studio, at that moment, we were making the shit we were supposed to make. Things happen for a reason. God doesn’t make mistakes.
Denzel, you said you had to mature to make music that sounded different and then you two had this actual conflict. So there were a few different things being negotiated.
Denzel: We would be in the booth, smoking one, talking shit. But what we were talking about was Madlib, and how he produced albums. I was talking about the individual Wu-Tang albums. I was on my Wu-Tang shit. I wanted to rap like that. The way they would say words was just intriguing to the ear. And he was on the same wave that week.
Kenny: We were bullshitting between filming or whatever we were doing that day, and I was talking about how I haven’t had an MF DOOM phase, or a Dilla phase, or an Alchemist phase since I first had it. When you first find out about these records and the Stones Throw world and everything, you get obsessive as a young kid. Then your next wave comes, and your next wave comes, and it’s just in your pocket. Do I go listen to it everyday? Not necessarily. I don’t know what had put me back on it, but I had been listening to nothing but Madlib, nothing but Quasimoto.
Did you have that same sort of phase when you were younger, Denzel?
Denzel: If you watch Spaceghostpurrp’s Nardwuar interview, Nardwuar hands him a Stones Throw record, and he thought I was gonna be on tour with them to get that record. That was my favorite label. Out of everybody, I wanted to sign to Stones Throw. I understood where Kenny was coming from. We were talking about Madvilliany as an album: a producer and rapper doing things. How do we blend the two, but it’s us? We were trying to make the most crazy shit that Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats could make.
"I don’t know what had put me back on it, but I had been listening to nothing but Madlib, nothing but Quasimoto." - Kenny Beats
Kenny: This was probably the only month of time out of my whole year where that would have been interesting to me. It’s not like, "Oh, I filled my trap quota for the month and then I filled my boom-bap quota for the month." I just get obsessive about certain things and it just happened that my obsession was in that era at that moment.
Quasimoto was definitely one of the first things I thought of while listening to Unlocked.
Kenny: I played it for Madlib, and I thought he was gonna look at me crazy. All he did was bump his head and give me a hug.
Denzel: I wish I could have seen his reaction. The way it is in the rap game, not a lot of people give each other respect.
It sounds like you’re almost rapping with a chip on your shoulder on this project.
Denzel: Every time I rap, I have something to prove. Anything could happen. My career could be over any minute. I go in there with the intent of doing my best every time. I wanna make sure I shine on the track. If it doesn’t work, fuck it. We shoot first and ask questions later.
Kenny: I don’t think people are used to that level of passion and aggression coming from such a pure place. Denzel comes in there and does it to the Nth degree. He’s not in the studio smoking a whole bunch of weed, getting all fucked up, he’s already locked into his zone. It’s a way different vibe than anybody else I work with. There’s always so much that needs to happen to get someone to that point where they’ll make their best song. Denzel literally just needs a bottle of water.
I guess that explains how you two made this project in three days but take me through that a bit more. What were those 72 hours like?
Kenny: My viewpoint on full projects are you’re trying to capture a moment. So if you have three days or a week where this artist is really in their element and getting out what they’re trying to get out, then they have to go on tour or something and you try to get back in the studio after, you’re trying to put magic back in the bottle. 72 hours sounds crazy when you’re working at a normal pace but that can happen when someone works as hard as Denzel. It was just us in the studio alone. JPEG[MAFIA] came by one time, and he was the only other person who saw anything.
Denzel: Kenny cancelled everybody else’s sessions to dedicate time to this. When you get to Kenny’s studio, it’s a real vibe. Ain’t no fuckery gonna go down in there. He’s on go on the keyboard and the pads, and I’m on go with my vocals.
Kenny: When he got back the second day, I had spent all this time staying there that night working on the songs and getting beats ready. Then he got back the third day and all of sudden there’s songs with two beats and the vocals are fucked up and this and that. He was seeing that I was staying there and putting in that time. I just kept telling him to come back tomorrow.
Denzel: That’s what I kept doing. If he was willing to do all that, I was willing to keep going.
You both mentioned Madlib, Stones Throw, and Wu-Tang as influences on the sound but this project also seemed to have a lot of cinematic references and cartoon references. What else were you bringing in?
Denzel: When it came down to my side, my side was the visual and putting that all together.
Kenny: He had the whole universe conceived in the studio. The animations, the characters, us losing the files—he was telling me all of this while I was trying to make a beat, which was so annoying.
Denzel: People be thinking I’m joking when I say shit, but I’m dead ass serious. Then I started showing him the visual ideas and the cover of the project.
Kenny: He would send me random sketches and paragraph descriptions on iPhone notes and weird drawings. I couldn’t see it at first, but I was like this music is so good. Whatever he wants to put on this, I’m good. When they sent me the first animations of me stuck in the computer and all that, I was like, “Oh, he literally saw this while we were in the studio.”
Denzel, you have this Zeltron alter-ego that shows up on the project. How has that developed and what does it add for you?
Denzel: Zeltron started in 2017 because I made a song called “Zeltron 6 Billion.” It was a spin off of Deltron 3030. I was going crazy with all these different personalities so I decided to just make Zeltron just to be the most versatile personality that could do everything. Everybody thought I was a one-trick pony. It’s like Beyoncé and Sasha Fierce.
Kenny: Bro said he’s Sasha Fierce.
Denzel: I am Sasha Fierce. I’m a bad bitch.
What was the thought process behind orchestrating the fake beef between the two of you?
Kenny: We could have dropped and it would have went up, but we were just trying to see something. And that was: What do y’all really care about? As soon as Denzel talked some shit to me, that got 20,000 retweets so fast.
Denzel: Everybody was so mad like, “Y’all fooled us.” The world got enough drama already. If you want some drama, go watch a movie. And that’s exactly what we gave them.
I want people to embrace conflict. Rappers talk shit on the daily and nobody makes money from it. We gon’ do that, and we gon’ profit off it. We also had to go through that bad business decision first for this to happen. There had to be some conflict to make something raw. He could do the [pounding on the table] boom, boom, distorted 808 but that’s what everybody else is doing.
Kenny: I don’t think this project would feel the same if it had a perfect start to it. Our friendship had to form. I feel like I wasn’t making music that meant anything to me until I was 26 years old, so I’m realizing that sometimes it takes three years or five years to understand what the point of even making music together is.
Denzel: When we do this Unlocked 2… Kenny’s like, “Shut up, bro.”
So a part two is definitely happening?
Denzel: Unlocked is just one episode in a season.
Kenny: Because we made everything so differently, what I expect out of myself moving forward with this project isn’t just a volume two, it’s different than that. We got a whole season of episodes to make.
Denzel: We also got Club Black Dust—that’s me, JPEGMAFIA, Slowthai, and Zillakami. We’re gonna be like a boy band, but we’re gonna call ourselves a “man band.” I’ve been talking to Kenny about joining that shit.
Kenny recently tweeted about this, but I wanted to ask about the connection between you cutting your dreads off and then naming the project Unlocked.
Denzel: The symbolism. We were sitting in the studio, listening back to everything that we made, coming up with names. We didn’t want to call this Denny Beats or Kenny Curry or some corny shit.
Kenny: Denny Beats was never on the table.
Denzel: I thought of Unlocked because he’s not producing like Kenny Beats. He entered another echelon of who Kenny Beats is as a producer, and you forced me to rise up to that as the artist I should be. The fact that we both unlocked something within ourselves... and I don’t have dreads anymore so it’s just fresh as fuck. This is us. Whenever me and him are working together, it’s some Unlocked shit.