Eight days before Valentine’s Day, Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats were seemingly beefing on Instagram and Twitter. Kenny was in the midst of an Instagram Live session when Curry invaded his broadcast, angrily berating the producer for something he wouldn’t explain. “I don’t even got to say shit, bro. I’m just fitting to come through and smack the shit out of you,” Curry said before ending their conversation.
Hours later, while fans wondered what could have possibly gotten the rapper so upset with the superstar producer who’s collaborated with everyone from Rico Nasty to DaBaby, Curry and Kenny revealed their trick: It was actually all love. Their "beef" was a strategic lead-up to a surprise-released new EP, Unlocked. Along with it came an indescribable 24-minute film of the same name featuring the pair rendered in animation, claymation, and video-game graphics. It all seemed like a master plan, but its origins were far less ambitious.
“We didn’t have a conscious conversation about doing a project together,” Kenny tells MTV News over the phone. “[Curry] hit me up about the show that I do on YouTube called The Cave, and after the show, we decided to make a song or two, which ended up turning into ‘Lay Up’ and '‘Pyro’ from the project.” Over the next three days, they locked in over a shared appreciation for artists like MF Doom, The Alchemist, and Madlib.
Unlocked, recorded shortly after Curry cut off his signature dreads last year, is six full-length broiling tracks, an introduction, and an interlude that displace you from the high-tech world of 2020. It sounds rougher and more antagonistic than both Curry’s head-rocking rap style and Kenny’s intricate and metallic but varied production. “It’s named Unlocked because I wasn’t rapping the way that I normally rap, and Kenny wasn’t producing the way that he normally produces,” Curry says.
The duo have known each other for a while, but things were different this time when they hopped in the booth. “We’ve made a ton of music, but none of it has ever been substantial or was the best of either of our potential,” Kenny, 28, says. “This was our first time trying something really left of center, and we just clicked. After three days, we knew what we had. I was going to bed those nights, listening to the songs, and then waking up, calling Denzel, and telling him that I was on the way to the studio.”
Curry, a 25-year-old Florida native, transported himself back to late-’90s New York for inspiration. He listened to the Wu-Tang Clan essentials Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., and Old Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version to put him in this old-school headspace. “You also get glimpses of DMX, but Wu-Tang was the base for it,” he says. “I wanted to make my own version of their sound.”
As Curry rattles off razor-sharp punchlines about being ahead of the competition, Kenny’s brush-fire production sets off the smoke detector in your brain, matching Curry’s voice with a wild intensity that gets you amped. “We had a lot of conversations that day about MF Doom and Madlib and other stuff that we hadn’t listened to in a long time,” Kenny says. While Curry found inspiration in Wu-Tang’s catalog, Kenny turned to the subterranean work of Madlib and The Alchemist to give him his foundation. “I actually got a chance to play the album for both of them and I was extremely nervous because I thought that they would think that I was ripping them, or that it was bullshit. Two of my biggest idols showed praise to it.”
While Curry and Kenny play-fought to hype the album, its accompanying visual continues the story of their argument, which necessarily sets up the plot. Curry pulls up to Kenny’s studio, indignant that their collaborative project was leaked. To find out who leaked it and to get the files back, Kenny zaps the two inside his computer, where they visit six different animated worlds reminiscent of Scooby-Doo, the horror manga series Uzumaki, Robot Chicken claymation, and more.
“The way that I chose these worlds, basically, is how the beat and songs sound individually,” Curry says. “For instance, ‘Take_it_Back_v2’ had a dark vibe and beat to match the lyrics, so we chose the Uzumaki world because it's gritty and in your face like a horror film. And for ‘Lay_Up.m4a,’ it sounds like something that you’d hear in a 1960s episode of Scooby-Doo, so that’s why we put the show as the basis for that.”
Everything about the movie, shot by Los Angeles-based production company Psycho Films, was meticulously crafted. Curry, who’s credited as a writer, even helped pick out the characters’ half-black, half-white outfits that initially look like they’re easy to use for consistent animation. But there was actually another reason for that — and of course, it's also inspired by Wu-Tang. “If you watch their video for ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin,’ you see one side of the group that wears all black Wu-Tang outfits and the other side wears all white Wu-Tang outfits,” he says. “I just put those together to create those outfits.”
The Unlocked film ends with a hilarious turn of events: The two find that the leakers are their evil doppelgängers who whoop their asses and take their respective places in the real world. “It was a metaphor, because we’re really the ones that leaked the project,” Curry says. “There’s no evil Denzel Curry or evil Kenny Beats; there’s also not necessarily a good Denzel Curry or good Kenny Beats.” The last shot that we’re treated to is of both the OG Curry and the OG Kenny trapped inside a box, headed to who knows where.
Or maybe we do know. When Curry tweeted the link to the video on February 7, he captioned it with “UNLOCKED EP.1 ??,” seemingly hinting at more to come from his and Kenny’s virtual selves. “There definitely are plans,” Kenny says about the follow-up. Curry says it’s inevitable when they get together: “It’s like putting two scientists together in a laboratory.”