A version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
Three years ago, Denzel Curry was just your average 18-year-old American high school student with modest ambitions of turning a rap hobby into a full-fledged career when he released his debut album, Nostalgic 64. But as demonstrated by last year’s potently psychedelic sophomore follow-up, the aptly-titled 32 Zel / Plant Shrooms, his hunger for creating hip-hop based around both the intellect and the artifice had not yet been fully quelled. While contemporaries like A$AP Rocky had already locked themselves inside luxe studios, attempting to repackage psychotropics as fast fashion for a younger, impressionable generation, Curry seemed more interested in tunneling under the tripwire of constructs and conventions, and sought out mystical practices and otherworldly properties to tap into his brand of rap music. His latest album, Imperial, applies these findings not only in the form of strikingly prismatic and colorful sonic dimensions but in the lyrics as well, which explore a young artist attempting to make sense of sick society in the Information Age.
For hip-hop has always been an art form naturally hellbent on exposing the false truths in our society, Denzel Curry is the latest entry in a long history of rappers cleverly utilizing an array of techniques in doing so. Disembodied vocal samples bookend album standout “Narcotics,” which features Tupac Shakur specifically, from an MTV interview where every time he speaks he “wants the truth to come out.” Although Curry’s music largely rests within the rigid framework of the hardcore hip-hop genre—tense, terse, and with bouts of near-hysterical aggression—his views, like those of Shakur’s, are basically optimistic, a constant search to be “Pure Enough,” but the path to get there is full of snares: racial and cultural stereotypes (“Narcotics”), organized religion (“Story: No Title”) and the starkly rendered poison of living in an industrialized city (“This Life”) look to ultimately drag us all down. Without even a morsel of preachiness in his distinct, individualistic rap style, the 21-year-old seems to say that all people on this planet delude themselves, have to be well to pay their dues, and existentially accept their place in the universe. “Separate everyone, make sure they neighbors/ Aftermath, after that, we can laugh later,” is the way he puts it in “ULT,” the key tune of Imperial—it’s idealistic, purposeful, yet stone-faced serious, all while retaining something that’s harmonically vivid.
Denzel Curry may be a fiercely independent artist with no major label backing, mainstream cosigns, or company sponsorships whatsoever, but he’s unfazed by this, and nonetheless has no trouble imbuing Imperial with exciting, quality hooks and infectious, earworm melodies all on his own. So much so that he even outwardly professes it on “Pure Enough,” virtually telling off the music industry that he doesn’t “need no Aubrey Graham [Drake] just to make a hit.” Curry certainly has nothing against rappers embracing catchy hooks to land on the Top 40 pop charts, however he doesn’t stress the point in his own music. In fact, it seemingly comes naturally for him on Imperial. Take “Sick and Tired,” one of the album’s brightest spots; as a budding songwriter Curry carefully juxtaposes a swirling, grim subject matter that pertains tropes like street violence with an intoxicating, floating hook that sounds as though it’s a voice of reason in the interim for all of the madness unfolding. Perhaps what’s most impressive about the song is that there’s practically no discordance between Curry’s bleak lyrics and the tide of elaborate studio effects, such as the milky reverb over the rapper’s hook, which appropriately evokes a strong, kaleidoscopic psychedelic tone. The song, in turn, is like candy for conscious hip-hop’s pineal gland.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of varied music on Imperial. There’s everything from darkly intricate beats (“Gook”), ominous and cosmic elements (“Story: No Title”), what could only be described as a ride through a fun house (“Knotty Head”), even a nod to ’60s psychedelic rock (“If There’s No Tomorrow”), but it’s all unmistakably of Denzel Curry’s own doing, as each segment plays a special role within his elaborate universe. A vast majority of the music that materializes on Imperial are instrumentals handled by frequent collaborator, producer Ronny J, whom worked on 32 Zel / Planet Shrooms cuts “Envy Me” and “Ultimate,” both of which have since become fan favorites, and have made their way into the rapper’s live sets. Curry and Ronny work well together and understand what each is trying to achieve creatively. Ronny builds each song around a phantasm of peculiar sounds for a hip-hop album, ranging from janky sitars, a vintage music box, dark ambient overtones, skittering digital stabs, watery plucks, murky synth leads; all floating points that ultimately coalesce into trippy, multidimensional soundscapes. If not, there’s still much to enjoy in the multi-layered ambiance and restrained beats of this intriguingly pastoral apocalypse that perfectly accompanies Curry’s wide-eyed wonderment throughout.