Table Of Contents
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Black Habits -by- D Smoke
Quadra -by- Sepultura
UNLOCKED -by- Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
By D Smoke
On October 23, 2019, Netflix aired the season finale of their new American Idol-style reality TV competition Rhythm and Flow, in which rappers across the country competed to make it to the final round, proving themselves as one of the best up-and-coming rappers and earning $250,000 cash. Rapper D Smoke emerged victorious, and the next day went on to release his debut EP Inglewood High. Less than 4 months later, he’s back with his debut studio album Black Habits.
On Black Habits, D Smoke has taken the opportunity to develop a more fully fleshed out concept than on Inglewood High, showing everything he has to offer.
The opener, “Morning Prayer” emits a warm energy that sets the tone for the majority of this album – it’s D Smoke’s hand-written love letter to his family, to his home city Inglewood, to the black community as a whole, and to the rap music that helped make him who he is.
As the “Morning Prayer” transitions into “Bullies”, D Smoke begins delivering his own brand of rap wisdom that’s often compared to Kendrick Lamar by other fans. As a whole, he seems to straddle the line between the honesty and personal focus of Good Kid M.A.A.D. City and the artistry and sage-like concepts woven together on To Pimp A Butterfly.
The first half of the album focuses heavily on D Smoke’s more rap-oriented sound with tracks like “No Commas” and “Gaspar Yanga” taking on a classic west coast sound with a more modern edge. Smoke’s hard attitude mixed with his clear intelligence makes him a formidable adversary for the rappers on top to keep an eye out for.
After releasing all of this energy early on, the second half of the album takes on a much more thoughtful, RnB focused sound. “Fallin'” takes a nostalgic look at young love. “Like My Daddy” is exactly what you’d assume, an homage to his biggest inspiration: his father. “Closer To God” peers into coping mechanisms, unhealthy addictions, and breaking free from self-destructive cycles.
Overall, every song is clearly written thoughtfully and has an important, intimate message. It’s an excellent album, and I think the only place it falls short is in D Smoke finding a more solid identity for himself. His occasional verses of Spanish help personalize him, but I still feel he has a few more steps to take before finding his voice fully.
I give Black Habits by D Smoke a 4 out of 5.
This first quarter of the record is fully thrash focused, with blistering riffs and rapid-fire vocals. “Isolation” and “Means to an End” are excellent tracks with no extra bells and whistles, just pure aggression and excellent performances from all involved.
The second quarter of Quadra is more attuned to the groove-metal side of Sepultura’s catalog, although it still has the high tempo and energy of their thrashier side. “Capital Enslavement” is an absolutely brutal in-your-face track that’s impossible not to headbang to.
The third quarter of the album is my favorite, taking a more progressive route. “Guardians of Earth” is loaded with excellent riffs and creative melodic shifts that keep things interesting, followed by the mind-bending instrumental “The Pentagram”. “Autem” rounds out this section with an earworm of a hook that still manages to stand out when compared to the insane instrumentals surrounding it.
The final stretch of the record is more melodic, opening with the title track “Quadra” – a traditional Spanish guitar interlude that helps the tension built up from earlier in the record melt away. Although this quarter isn’t quite as aggressive as those preceding, the completely massive sound of “Agony of Defeat” is every bit as powerful. The closing track, “Fear, Pain, Chaos, Suffering” features unsettling, ghostly guest vocals from Emmily Barretto of Far From Alaska. This start of the song is drenched in such intense tension and grime that perfectly breaks into a slower, more melodic passage followed by a masterful solo.
It’s apparent that Sepultura put tons of thought into this album – it’s not just a collection of similar metal tracks like many fans have criticized their post-Max Cavalera work for being. This record shows more than anything that Sepultura is still a huge force to be reckoned with in the metal world, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
I give Quadra by Sepultura a 4 out of 5.
By Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats
What happens when you put one of the most versatile modern rappers in the studio for 24 hours with one of trap’s most prolific producers? UNLOCKED is what happens. The short album, clocking in at only 17 minutes long, was released on February 7th with an accompanying short film.
Denzel & Kenny have both been busy over the past year. Denzel released his fourth album Zuu last spring, collaborated with Glass Animals on the stellar “Tokyo Drifting” which ended up as my top song of 2019, and released 13LOOD 1N + 13LOOD OUT MIXX on YouTube earlier this January. Kenny, busy as always, released two collaborative albums last year – Anger Management with Rico Nasty and Netflix & Deal with 03 Greedo. Aside from this, he brought his production mastery to dozens of tracks, including Dominic Fike’s “Phone Numbers” and Rex Life Rajj’s “Moonwalk”.
With all of the work the two have been doing over the past year, this project’s release was the last thing I expected.
It all started with Denzel’s appearance on the season 1 finale of Kenny Beats’ YouTube series The Cave, in which Kenny invites various artists to his studio to come up with a beat and record a freestyle on the spot. What wasn’t mentioned upon the finale’s release was the fact that Denzel stayed in the studio with Kenny for 24 hours after the filming of their episode of The Cave.
During this frenzied 24 hours, Denzel and Kenny recorded the entirety of UNLOCKED in a unique, flash-in-the-pan moment of frenzied creativity.
In the past, some artists have bragged about the brevity of their recording sessions. Juice WRLD went on record claiming to have recorded his album Death Race For Love in just four days… and it really showed – not in a good way.
That is not the case here.
Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats beats have managed to produce a project that sounds simultaneously disjointed and tied together in a pure stream of consciousness. While Kenny is known for his work in trap primarily and Denzel generally sticks to more modern rap styles, the two took this opportunity to channel old school rap artists like MF Doom and DMX with a decidedly boom-bap sound.
The record opens with “Track 01” which opens with an old taped monologue that slowly dissolves into an old school beat with psychedelic effects thrown in the accentuate the track and keep it interesting. Afterwards, “Take_it_Back_v2” bursts into action with a skeletal beat punctuated by high a repeating high-pitched note. The rhythm begins flowing and increasing in intensity until the beat switches to a deeper, heavier version of the original with Denzel’s vocals pitch-shifted down which follows the same general structure as the original.
“Lay_Up.m4a” starts with more retro-sounding dialogue sampling with before stuttering into action with a more laid back cut that’s every bit as cold and hard as its predecessor. As the hook comes in, the production gets more melodic with synths and bass twisting around Zel’s staccato flows. The song builds on the general lyrical braggadocio and aggression from the first track even with its more level approach.
“Pyro (leak 2019)” Opens with the line “My bitch bad like battle rappers who make albums,” and that’s really all you need to know to get the tone of the track. As funny as he is vicious, Denzel verbally unloads on his opponents while building himself up. Kenny’s production takes a more positive but spacey sound here, and his creative use of dialogue samples continues to help accentuate the music in a unique way.
“Diet” opens with plodding, seemingly unplanned bass with layer upon layer of off-kilter percussion sounds that sound like anything but traditional drums, but fit the track excellently. Denzel’s intentionally lazy flow slowly picks up to full-on DMX growling as the bass begins to fill the track out more. Yet again, Denzel is as in-your-face as ever, continuing his grand victory lap around the rap game that’s manifested on this album. The hook is as grimy as it is enthralling, and Denzel effortlessly glides over the beat when he’s not vocally tearing it apart.
“So.Incredible.pkg” has a more mellow, traditional hip-hop sound as opposed to the more aggressive energy on most of the album. That doesn’t mean Denzel’s pulling his punches though – his cleaner vocals here work perfectly with the beat while still sounding as forceful and cocky as ever. The occasional bass flourishes are far from Kenny’s usual 808 sound, but he’s every bit as masterful with them. It might be 2020, but this track emits such a strong 90s aura you could’ve fooled me if you told me it was actually recorded back then.
“Track 07” follows a similar style to “Track 01”, but with more focus on the smooth bassline and spacey keys melting in and out of the mix. Kenny mixes samples of old voice recordings and pitch-shifted bars from earlier tracks in a style that seems to have no rhyme or reason that still manages to sound inspired and well assembled. The track fades into a random dialogue with Denzel and another indiscernible voice.
“‘Cosmic’.m4a” opens with a faded, groovy bassline and sparse drums before Denzel hits the ground running with his hardest bars yet. The beat carries a huge sense of gravity and finality, like a musical boss fight. The intensity goes up a notch as Denzel’s vocals get more and more aggressive, with perfect support from Kenny. One of the best parts of this project are the seemingly random, stroke-of-genius bits of production wizardry Kenny mixes in – the pitch-shifted, distorted effect on Denzel’s vocals as he finishes a line with “take one shot to the brain” followed up by an exaggerated superhero punch sound hits harder than a freight truck, and there are dozens of moments like this interspersed through the project. The hook suspends the tension for a brief moment before the verse explodes back into action. The track continues on for one more round before the beat begins to fall apart and mix with more of Kenny’s wonderfully mad collage of instruments, sound effects, and voice recordings that slowly send the album off.
This album is only 17 minutes. You could definitely make the argument that it isn’t even an album. But in this brief window, the detail and artistry of a fully fleshed out record are present – honestly, there’s even more thought and talent crammed into this project than a lot of recent 20+ track, filler-stuffed albums like Funeral and The Big Day.
I’m usually not a fan of shorter projects, a phenomenon that’s become more and more common in recent years – but this serves as a concrete example that brevity doesn’t always have to be disappointing. I think of this as less of an album and more of an experience – especially when paired with the 23-minute long short film that accompanies it. The variety in animation and the fun concept of the story meshes perfectly with the musical creativity from the record, as Denzel and Kenny journey through a virtual world together that’s as whimsical as it is masterful.
I give Unlocked by Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats a 4.5/5
Other New Releases
There’s not enough time for me to give a full review to every project that comes out – so here’s the rest of the new music that I listened to and enjoyed this week but didn’t have a chance to review.
Which Way Is Forward?
By Obongjayar // EP
By Skyhaven // Single
By Joji // Single