How Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats Made 2020's Strangest Rap Joint

“HELL NAH THESE PRODUCER N***AS GOT ME FUCKED UP BRUH!!!” News of Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats’ collaborative EP, UNLOCKED, began as a war cry. The SoundCloud rap pioneer took to Twitter to draw some attention — and it worked. “ON LOTTO WHEN I SEE YOU IMA BEAT YO ASS!!! @kennybeats” he continued. Fans and collaborators began reaching out: Vince Staples and Isaiah Rashad checked in with Kenny Beats, while Kiddo Marv, Sam Sneak, and BROCKHAMPTON’s Dom McLennon hit up Denzel.

The situation deflated as quickly as it started. The punchline? A YouTube link shared by both artists to a short film that sees the pair arguing over a leaked project before heading out on a bizzaro animated adventure through the internet where they’d attempt to reclaim the leaked files. Co-created by Psycho Films, and presented through a variety of animation styles, the piece throws back to Saturday morning cartoons and is soundtracked by eight tracks of collage-heavy boom bap reminiscent of early 2000s indie rap. Spoiler alert: the film reveals Denzel and Kenny’s evil other-dimensional counterparts to be the culprits of the leak.

That beef might have just been a marketing gimmick, but it’s not as far-fetched as fans might think. At one point, Denzel was “anti-Kenny” — the pair had fallen out over a record and only reunited last year when Denzel appeared on Kenny’s popular YouTube show The Cave. The series gives viewers a window into the prolific producer’s creative process; Go-Pros employed around his studio capture 30-minute studio sessions in which he cooks up tracks that his collaborators freestyle on. After shooting an episode, the guest usually tends to hang around and work on new music, which was how Kenny and Denzel found themselves embarking on what would become an impromptu three day creative odyssey — leading to their unorthodox collaborative EP, UNLOCKED.

We caught up with them both to assemble an oral history of how they drew upon mutual inspiration to make an unexpected body of work that’s drawn them closer together and tapped into new creative potential for both artists.

Denzel Curry: Me and Kenny met some time ago, around [2018’s] TA13OO. We met in Atlanta and we was working on a few records. He actually had a beat for [2019’s] ZUU that I had rapped on. It was supposed to be for “P.A.T.” And then something happened: he ended up giving the beat to somebody. And I got into it with him. I was hot that he gave the beat away when I recorded it. I didn’t want to be friends with Kenny. I was like fuck that. I was anti-Kenny at that point.

Kenny Beats: We had done this one song; about 10 months after the song had been made, Denzel hit me up and was like, “Yo, I need the files for this, I’m putting it on my album.” Him and I had barely spoken in that time period. And so, when you’re a producer, your bread and butter is being able to play the best record you can in any scenario. And I was in a scenario months later with an artist that Denzel and I are both big fans of, that asked me for a very specific energy. That record was that type of energy. I played that beat and that beat got placed. Denzel called me about the beat, there was really nothing I could do. I was kind of hoping he would understand the business aspect of that, and he spazzed on me and was like “Bro what the fuck is wrong with you? How you gonna disrespect me like this?” And hung up on me. He wasn’t really trying to hear anything about what I was talking about.

DC: And then my cousin was telling me about The Cave, and I was telling him about what happened with Kenny Beats. So he was like, “Well shit, the day y’all get it together at least get on The Cave at least one time.” Because he feels like I’d murk it or whatever. So I let time go by, and then I hit up Kenny. Me and him was talking, I was like “Whatever we gon’ make, I don’t want no beats that you already made. I want that shit from scratch. Like straight up.” And then he was like, “Yo, for sure.”

KB: So we weren’t on best friend terms. We’d had a bad run in over some misunderstanding and out of that energy we somehow created this new bond and this whole new sound and everything.

DC: It’s like Raekwon and Ghost — they didn’t fuck with each other until they got into the Wu-Tang Clan. It was like that with me and Kenny, except nobody got shot behind it or nothing like that. It was just some producer/rapper shit. That shit happens. We was just talking about the [Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men] documentary, we was talking about Madvillainy, we were talking about Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The vibe that me and Kenny was on when we made UNLOCKED, it was just like we was on some real rap, real weird production shit. So it was just like we put our own spin to it. Kenny Beats was doing Kenny Beats, I was doing Denzel Curry, and we just made that shit animated, just like both of us.

KB: Everyone has their moment with [J Dilla] when they first learn about it and go do their homework, and then you move on to the other 10 influences you have as a kid. But later in your 20s and you come back and listen to those same records, it kind of gives you a new feeling, especially when you make music, because now you see it a whole different way. It really just came together because we shared this newfound interest in all this boom bap stuff that had not really been the focus for either one of us in the last few years. You never think to channel your influences whenever you’re going to work on the songs that are going to be the best thing in Denzel’s festival set. You don’t think to make a boom bap record when all you hear on the radio is everything but that. And the energy of this project is what was exciting to me and Denzel at that moment.

DC: We got that shit crackin’ for like three days. His motto is “Don’t Over Think Shit.” So I wasn’t overthinking nothing. I was just, like, whatever I’ma say, I’ma say, and then we just gon’ keep it like this and the whole aesthetic is going to be called UNLOCKED. The whole reason we called it UNLOCKED is because Kenny wasn’t producing the way people expected him to produce, I wasn’t rapping the way people expected me to rap. And the whole UNLOCKED thing came about because I cut my dreads around that time, because I was going through something. I cut my dreads so now it’s like a different form of me.

My sign is Aquarius, and we’re unpredictable people. You’re not going to predict what our next move is going to be. Me being unpredictable makes me versatile. I just know whatever direction I’m going to go in, I’m going to play that part but I’ma play it seriously.

KB: I think knowing that about him, that he is so versatile and that anything is up for grabs — when I went to make songs with him this time, I was just like, “Ok, let me just give him a curveball. Let me try to do something that’s way different than anything either one of us are working on. And just see if that will crack the code.” Because every time I’d tried to give Denzel exactly what people would expect from he and I, it never had the X-factor. I had to make him uncomfortable for him to really come out of his shell in our working relationship.

There’s absolutely no records [sampled] on UNLOCKED: there’s royalty-free stuff, random public domain samples where copyrights have run out on them — any old or interesting sounding audio that I could get that was fair play. Because I didn’t want to be held up by sample clearances, but I wanted to get this vibe of those records we were listening to and the influences we were trying to channel. Anything I could get my hands on that made you nostalgic or put you in this time place, I would just litter throughout the project. It really goes to show that you can really give that energy without having to do the exact same thing that even the producers I look up to did. I found my own lane, and Denzel found his in the songwriting.

DC: We realized the shit was cohesive and it was fire at the same time. And we was just like, “Bruh this is how rap should be.” It should be fun, it should be what it is. People should just be able to enjoy the music. It’s not enough of that shit. Everybody judge it before they listen to it.

KB: The first day we made two songs and they just felt different. We made “Lay_Up.m4a” and we made “Pyro (leak 2019)” the first day. And then I cancelled my sessions for the following day, I called Denzel, he was able to pull up. We made two more songs. At the end of that day we were like, “Ok, this is something. We’re not sure what. We don’t necessarily know what the plan is for it. But we know we need another day, we need another second to think about this and flesh this out.” We were both working at exactly the same wavelength after 48 hours of just making different shit. We started really trusting each other in the sense that every little bit of our personality that we threw into here that’s random or off kilter or unusual, that’s what makes this project.

DC: There’s too much expectation with a promotion. So we had to put it out as a leak, because I didn’t want no singles. “Here, this what it is, this what you gon’ get. You’re gon’ get a comedy short film and you’re going to get the music at the same time.” And then to promote, we chose to do the beef because a lot of people are beefing with each other and not getting paid for it. So I’d rather see a fake beef to get everybody’s heads turning — because everybody loves drama for some reason, and my life ain’t full of drama. I did that to turn heads and then we just put the music out together and fooled everybody. The funny thing about it was, they wanted the negativity. I’m like, “You really wanted negativity? That’s fucked up.”

KB: It’s unbelievable that we were able to put this together so quick, when everybody tries to make you feel like all the time that you need eight months to get your roll out and your music together. It’s just not true. If you’re feeling it and there’s a moment there and you’re firing on all cylinders, there’s no telling what’s possible.

DC: I like how everybody embraced it and loved it. Now I can actually take my time with the next project. My main thing is making sure my discography is A1, like each record doesn’t go down in value, it goes up. So if that comes with experimenting with certain things [like UNLOCKED], then cool.