Of all the artists to emerge from the implosion of cult hip hop collective Raider Klan, Denzel Curry is the one who’s managed to achieve the most lasting success. Releasing a number of mixtapes, 2013’s Nostalgic 64 and last year’s double EP 32 Zel//Planet Shrooms, he’s gained notoriety for his intricate lyrics peppered with nerdy references, dark, crushing beats and a fast, twisty, choppy flow reminiscent of fallen Three Six Mafia MC Lord Infamous or Outkast’s Andre 3000. Imperial is a brave step forward, out of Nostalgic 64’s darkness and the lysergic have of 32 Zell//Planet Shrooms, into a brighter, more confident space, every element accentuated to perfection.
The production on this album maintains that same punchy, trunk rattling feel, with juddering 808s and eerie, wavy melodies, yet overall with a slighter cleaner, brighter feeling. The first half of the album embodies the aggressive side to Curry’s sound, with the hyperactive “Knotty Head”, featuring fellow Carol City, Miami native Rick Ross and the gritty, murky “Narcotics”, produced by New Orleans filth-merchants $uicideboy$. In contrast, the second half is a more reflective affair without the momentum being derailed, with the melancholy “Pure Enough”, the soaring, airy marijuana anthem “Zenith” featuring Joey Bada$$ in a meeting of two artists connected less by geography than a shared mind-set and approach to art. Most unique among all ten tracks is closing number “If Tomorrow’s Not Here”, a languid jazz influenced number, more relaxed than we are used to from Curry yet not losing any of its potency.
Lyrically Curry touches on his usual topics of growing up in the violent Carol City area of Miami, drug usage and trying to make sense of his position in, both within the rap scene and within the world as a whole. In contrast to his debut however, he approaches this with a reflective, yet ultimately more positive manner. The aggression and hostility characterising his early works takes on a more confident feeling, alongside the “nation of U.L.T.”, he’s taking the rap game head-on. Though he does fall into the trap of dressing up topics that aren’t that deep with a lot of references, metaphors and similes, he does it with such flair and enthusiasm that it does not get on the listeners nerves much. The tempering of the aggression also extends to his flow, while he is still spraying bars like a machine gun for many tracks, he can take it down a notch when it serves the song better, ensuring it does not become monotonous. The OTT yelling of 2015’s “Ultimate” is not found here thankfully.
Imperial is one of this year’s stand-out hip hop releases, a refreshing burst of creativity from an exciting young rapper who seems poised to finally make a splash in a big way. Alongside his place in the XXL Freshmen class of 2016, Imperial should push him above the underground in a big way. If you’re looking for something you can turn up to with a bit more of that lyrical skill the oldheads keep going on about, give this a spin.
For Fans Of: Vince Staples, A$AP Ferg, Xavier Wulf.