Album Review — Benny The Butcher’s ‘Burden of Proof’

The quality of albums released in 2020 have been amazing. Across the board in every genre, there’s been a remarkable album to represent every genre. Except for hip hop, which saw a slow start to 2020 and raised concerns for me after a disappointing 2019. But hip hop has come on real strong in the second half of this year. All it’s been missing is a crown jewel release. Until now. Unsurprisingly it comes from one of the best up and comers in hip hop today in Griselda’s Benny The Butcher. After he delivered a top ten album in Country Perspective’s Top Albums of 2019 list, he’s delivering even more with his new record Burden of Proof.

The bouncing title track opens the album and right from the beginning Benny comes out firing with the bars. In this song goes into how him and Griselda did things differently and how now that they’re becoming more famous, more people are trying to copy their style. It also comes with more enemies. The line that best expresses this: “I know how it feels when they don’t like that you did it different/’Cause they dickridin’ trends just like them n***** you mimic.” It’s a great opener that tells you right away what you can expect from this project: hard-hitting bars with a message. The song ends with an entertaining skit too with Pain in Da Ass quoting The Sopranos and another quote from Carlito’s Way.

The spacey and smooth “Where Would I Go” has more fantastic bars from Benny as he reveals in this song his battle with asthma his entire life. Considering the circumstances of COVID-19 in the world right now and how especially important lung strength is in hip hop, this other side of Benny adds another compelling layer to his story and music. This song also has a really nice feature from Rick Ross and it’s a funny thing with Ross for me: I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an album all the way through from him, yet it feels like I enjoy every one of his features. It’s also a pretty big deal to hear the iconic Maybach Music tag next to the Griselda tag at the end, showing how far this scrappy group from Buffalo, New York has come and how they continue to rise.

“Sly Green” is fantastic, as the beat is classic east coast hip hop delivered from producer Hit-Boy. Benny tells stories of what he does best with his storytelling and that’s tales of the street. Like Pusha T and Freddie Gibbs, Benny does an excellent job of showing both sides of street life. While it’s easy from the outside to see the bad side with the obvious violence and dangers that come with it, there’s also the other side where this drug dealing and hustling feeds families. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. Speaking of Gibbs, he joins Benny on “One Way Flight.” These two were great together before on Gibbs’ “Frank Lucas” and they once again they deliver big together (when can we get an entire project with them together?). Butcher’s flow is flawless and at first you think Gibbs is only doing the hook, which sounds great from him, but you gotta have a Gibbs verse if you feature him. Thankfully he comes in at the end and it’s both equally great and hilarious, as he destroys the Los Angeles Clippers with this line: “Get fucked and sent home early just like the Clippers.”

“Famous” is another glimpse into the psyche of Benny The Butcher, as he goes into how he feels to be famous after spending years of hustling on the streets. His overall feeling seems to be a fish out of water and not really comfortable where he’s at now, as he feels caught between two different lives. Two brilliant lines that show this: “I chose money over fame, how I end up with ’em both?/I’m just a dealer to the judgе, and a sinner to the Pope” and “And I never thought I’d make it out the hood/And it don’t feel how I thought it should.” He then concludes the song proclaiming he’s made it, but also not forgetting his roots, as he shouts out the people who have stuck with him and those he’s lost.

“Timeless” is undoubtedly a play for mainstream appeal, as Benny is joined by big names in Lil Wayne and Big Sean. Despite the slicker production and features, it still feels like a Butcher song and something that fits on one of his albums. The production in particular manages to keep that grimy feel you’re used to hearing with Griselda while also having that mainstream polish. Both Wayne and Sean deliver solid features too. “New Streets” sees Benny breaking down how there’s two sides to the street life commonly rapped about in hip hop. As he explains in the song, there’s a lot more than the glamour and happy endings that many in hip hop only rap about and how at the end of the day there’s a lot more bad endings that go even beyond jail time. He also gets into how his mistakes and losses are what ultimately made him into who he is rather than the flashy wins.

It’s this realism and genuineness that shines through in Benny The Butcher’s work that’s quickly making him one of the best in the game, especially when so many in hip hop chase and promote the fake image he speaks out against throughout this album. Of course this isn’t an issue just in hip hop, as every genre struggles with the balance of reality and fantasy, as well as roots and tradition versus new school thoughts and ideas. If one becomes more lopsided, things go haywire. And Benny does such a good job of keeping this in mind with his music.

“Over The Limit” is about Benny getting out of the street game and how his past still haunts him, as federal authorities try to use the stories he raps about in songs against him to incriminate. While his past undoubtedly fuels his music and made him who he is with no regrets, he also doesn’t boast about this past, as he calls himself a survivor and he admits he got out as soon as he knew the consequences were too much as he was building his music career. Again the storytelling from him is excellent, Dom Kennedy is solid on the hook and the dramatic production really adds to the tension of the story being told.

Benny gets sentimental on “Trade It All,” as he gets into his relationships with his family. He raps about how important it is to him be a father to his daughter: “For the n***** in my position, take care of your daughters/No matter what they choose to do, they aware what you taught ’em/My kids took my advice ’cause I’m fair as a father.” This importance carries even more significance, as in the next song he reveals he was raised by a single mother, showing how he wants to be there for his kids like he didn’t have with his dad. Benny also goes into how the loss of his brother MachineGun Black shaped him and the cost he paid with this and how at the end of the day he would trade all of his fortune if he could get him back. It’s quite a deep moment from Benny, as it undoubtedly pulls at the heartstrings to hear such stirring reflection and sobering lessons learned from a hard life.

“Thank God I Made It” is more reflection and gratefulness from Benny, as he thanks his mother for all she did for him and making him the man he is today. He also goes into how the systemic racism in America combined with the broken households of many African American families across the country force so many into the dangers of street hustle, as it’s often the only option to provide for themselves and their families. Benny shouts out his brother again, as he says he feels his spirit as he writes this song. Every part of the lyricism throughout this song is just dripping with passion and impactful messages. Not to mention Queen Naija sounds fantastic on the hook and the soulful production is quite catchy.

“War Paint” is the traditional Griselda track with Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. The production on this track feels like a final boss level, as it has a cinematic gravitas about it. And as usual this trio sounds fantastic together. Conway steals the song though with these lines, as he delivers with such confidence: “HOV said, “You that boy”, I get acknowledged by the GOAT (What up, HOV?)/Woo, even shook the hand of Beyoncé/That story brought tears to the eye of my fiancée/But I don’t know if it’s because my shorty such a fan/Or did she realize in that moment, I’m the motherfuckin’ man.”

The album closes out with “Legend” and Benny essentially wraps up everything he covers throughout the album: the fame, his friends, family and announcing his arrival to the rest of the world unaware of him before now. Once again so many bars you could choose from throughout this song, as Benny is absolutely relentless. But the following are some of the best on the album: “My team got a will strong enough to beat cancer/Master’s in dope, before that, I had a Bachelor’s in coke/I’m like Ali, I fight better with my back on the ropes/Labels, I passed ’em up, it’s like they after the flow/And my legacy, it’s like they want a fraction of both/Nah, I was good by myself, this how I’m bettin’ now.” I mean you don’t get wordplay better than this, as it not only flows so well, but says so many things in such a short span.

Benny The Butcher gives you everything you want out of an excellent album and then some with Burden of Proof. The lyricism, production, the features and the themes are all flawless. He delivered so many great albums before this, but with this record he reaches a whole new level of greatness in my mind. As he says in the final track on the album, he’s ready to be a legend now. This album more than proves this high claim.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Westside Gunn’s ‘WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE’

Out of the Big Three of Griselda, it feels like Westside Gunn is the least heralded. It’s not a big surprise, as his style isn’t as accessible as Benny the Butcher and nor as lyrically compelling as Conway the Machine. But with his major label debut album WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE, Gunn has delivered what I arguably believe to be his best project yet. It shows what he’s best at and that’s delivering exciting flash.

“Sunshine Intro” leads off the album and not only sets the tone of it well with the eery beats, but it also features AA Rashid explaining the duality of lightness and darkness. It’s an interesting introduction that gives way to one of my favorite songs of 2020, “The Butcher and The Blade.” Paying homage to the AEW tag team of the same name (who also originate from Buffalo, New York like Griselda), the beat of this song is downright nasty. The exasperated exclaim of “fuck” at the beginning of the song is such a nice summation of how great this song is. It’s the standard Griselda joint, as each of the big three absolutely split fire over a swirling and surrealistic piano-driven beat. Big props to producers Daringer and Beat Butcha. And while each rapper on this song sounds great, Conway’s verse is absolutely incredible and further shows why he’s the lyricist king of the trio.

Gunn is joined by the iconic Black Thought on “Ishkabibble’s” and as always Black Thought delivers excellent bars. Also I’m impressed as always by his flow, as it’s just so smooth and flawless. Gunn holds his own though too and it’s one of many examples on this album show how when Gunn focuses he can be just as great as his Griselda brothers and the high-profile guests on this album. Boldy James and Jadakiss join “All Praises.” This song took a few listens to grow on me, as it just didn’t feel as strong as other songs on the album. It also has the misfortune of following up two great songs. James’ delivery still isn’t the most compelling to me, as I find it to be a bit stilted and dry for me. Jadakiss though sounds great, as his grimy delivery and solid bars add some much needed grit to this more polished sounding track.

“Big Basha’s” is the only solo Gunn track on the album and I wish we would have gotten more of this on the album. While the guest features on this are excellent, they also overshadow Gunn many times and it feels like he’s lost in his own album. It doesn’t help either that this song is so short too. Despite this song’s shortness, Gunn demonstrates great storytelling on the song, describing a grizzly scene that is common when drug deals go bad. “Liz Loves Luger” is the most controversial track on the album and that’s because it’s about Gunn busting a nut. And we also get to graphically hear him receiving this. Yeah, not something most people want to hear. But props to Armani Caesar for delivering a great feature, as she flows so naturally over the beat.

“Ocean Prime” is so slick and we get to hear two amazing features on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of delivery. First you have Busta Rhymes, who just goes absolutely ham over the beat. His crazy, frenetic, high energy he brings is so infectious. This is followed up by the legendary Slick Rick, who is the definition of cool, calm and collected with his delivery. I find it really cool to hear such differing deliveries in one song and how the versatility in styles in hip hop is what makes it so compelling. “Lessie” is one of my least favorite songs on the album, as it’s just not memorable lyrically and Keisha Plum’s spoken word features never really do anything for me.

“Frank Murphy” is a whopping eight minutes long and based on this runtime, your mileage will vary with this track. The production from Conductor Williams is without a doubt fantastic. It’s dirty, bleeding horns-driven beat is so much fun and it’s a sound you won’t forget after hearing it. It’s a long feature list on the track, but for me Stove God Cooks and Flee Lord deliver the best verses, as they bring the fire and intensity necessary for such a dominating beat. Gunn’s charisma shines well over the beat too. But I just don’t really see why this needed to be this long of a song. It’s not terrible, but it could have sounded just as great if not better at four minutes, as you run the risk of burning the listener out on such a long track with a beat, while compelling, that is also same-y sounding throughout.

“Good Night” features the best storytelling and lyrics on the album, as Gunn and Slick Rick tell an exciting story about a drug deal gone wrong between Gunn and a dealer and his cousin, who’s a rookie cop. The beginning of the song is from Gunn’s perspective and then later Rick comes in with the rookie cop’s side of the story. There’s so many twist and turns throughout the story, so be sure to listen to this until the end. And I’m glad to hear Slick Rick get an extended verse on this track, he once again delivers some cool, hard-hitting bars.

“98 Sabers” is the final track on the album and man does this record go out with an absolute bang. Just Blaze produces an absolute filthy, evil beat that shows why he’s one of the most respected producers in hip hop. Then Gunn, Caesar, Conway and Benny all sound their best, as it feels like each are trying to outdo the other. Everything about this song just feels epic, as it just keeps building and building, never letting up like “Monster” from Kanye’s My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s by far one of the best songs I’ve heard from Gunn.

WHO MADE THE SUNSHINE is a really fun album that’s enjoyable from front to back. Westside Gunn really steps up his game in his major label debut and shows why Griselda is the fastest rising group in hip hop. This album won’t compete for my top hip hop album of the year, but it’s definitely a record that is worthy of being in rotation for a long time and there are two songs on this album that absolutely belong on the best songs of the year list (“The Butcher and The Blade” and “98 Sabers”).

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Conway the Machine’s ‘From King To A GOD’

While it feels like most of hip hop is going pop, the Griselda group is perfectly content doing what they do best and that’s delivering some of the grimiest beats and hardest hitting bars in the game. While all three of Benny The Butcher, Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine all bring something great to the table, it feels like Conway in particular has had a rapidly rising 2020. All of his features have been standouts and he delivered a really solid project in LULU with The Alchemist (I haven’t even got a chance to listen to No One Mourns the Wicked yet). So now he’s released what he’s dubbing his debut album in From King to a GOD and it’s without a doubt a fantastic debut from an artist who is quickly establishing himself as one of the best lyricists in hip hop.

The voice of zen writer and speaker Alan Watts greets you on opener “From King,” which is definitely a nice surprise. Conway then does his thing and that’s drop hard hitting bars that set the tone for the album well. And the song ends with a sample of a Kevin Nash promo/Tony Schiavone commentary in WCW because it’s a Griselda album of course. It’s a great opener because I’ll remember it and it makes me want to hear more. Next is “Fear of God,” where Conway has a great, smooth flow and the DeJ Loaf feature fits the song’s attitude, capping off the song with a nice touch.

I really enjoy the griminess of “Lemon,” although the hook is a bit weak. But the bars hit hard, Conway’s delivery is emphatically great and Method Man absolutely kills his verse. His weathered, deep voice matches perfectly with the dark beats. Any other album and this should be easily the best feature, but this album is loaded with amazing guest features. “Dough & Damani” is produced by The Alchemist and of course it’s smooth as hell. Conway and The Alchemist have such great chemistry. Conway also features his more humorous side on this song, which is enjoyable. I particularly enjoy the short kit around two guys arguing over who gets to hold the gun.

“Juvenile Hell” is not only my favorite song on the album, but maybe my favorite song I’ve ever heard from Conway. First the beat on this is absolutely filthy and does 90s boom bap absolutely proud. Then you have the features from Flee Lord, Havoc and Lloyd Banks. Each one of them bring absolute fire, but Banks steals the show with his appearance. His flow over the beat is absolutely flawless and the wordplay is brilliant. The line I really enjoy is “I’m on my rivals, embarrass ‘em with my calm bravado/My alma mater of smackin’ a n**** horizontal.”

Next is the first “Words of Shay” interlude and it’s cool to hear these words from Conway’s close friend DJ Shay, who is unfortunately revealed to be dead later in the album on Conway’s tribute to him on “Forever Droppin Tears.” And I should point out that the title is not just an expression of Conway’s sadness over the passing of his friend, but also a reference to Shay talking about in the interludes how Conway cries when recording songs. So it doubles as Conway’s showing of passion. The song itself is an absolutely beautiful tribute with lots of heartfelt lyrics and great storytelling of the relationship between Shay and Conway. It’s all set over a bouncy and classy beat from Hit-Boy and El Camino adds a lot with his feature. But I will say I don’t think the third interlude was really necessary, as I think the tribute was good as is with just two interludes. Still it doesn’t take away much from one of the highlights of this album.

“Front Lines” is Conway’s take on the civil unrest and Black Lives Matter movement that took place this past summer and the systemic racism that has been taking place for years. Conway does a fantastic job laying out all the issues and once again his storytelling lyricism really shines, particularly when he’s describing how routine police stops quickly turn to violence for many black Americans. The song ends with a clip of a news report of when protesters broke into the Minnesota police precinct this past summer and this definitely fits the song, but I feel it goes a bit too long and smaller clip would have been more effective.

“Anza” is the weakest song of the album, as it’s pop-ish flavor is such a stark contrast to the rest of the record’s sound and sticks out like a sore thumb. It just doesn’t fit and while Armani Caesar is a great MC, her feature is a bit boring. All around this song just doesn’t work within this album. “Seen Everything But Jesus” gets back on the right track though and grows on me more and more with each listen. Conway is joined by Freddie Gibbs and as always Gibbs delivers. A nice surprise we get from Gibbs though is some singing in addition to his always hard-hitting bars. While he seemed to always be joking when doing this earlier in his career, his singing is actually pretty good and I wouldn’t mind hearing him take on some R&B songs. Even his more humorous singing moments are fun (see “FLFM” off Freddie).

“Spurs 3” is the traditional Griselda joint on all Griselda albums and like a Gibbs feature, you can always count on this to be great. The dark and eccentric beat is lively and engaging, with each of Conway, Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher flowing well over it. Although I am a bit surprised that Benny is weakest sounding on this track, as usually he’s the best technical rapper of the trio (Gunn is more about flash and Conway is the sharp lyricist). Nonetheless it’s a solid track.

“Jesus Khrysis” has a spacey, throwback beat that draws on boom bap again, something this album really does a great job with and it’s one of my favorite beats of the album. What makes it even better is the lyricism is top notch, with Conway delivering excellent verses like “N***** try blockin’ my goals, I’ma make it Messi” and “That’s the zone I’m in, I write with a golden pen/But lately, I ain’t even been writin’, I just been goin’ in.” Not only is the later a great bar, but also a possible glimpse into Conway’s approach to writing because apparently him and Benny both go into the studio and record without any lyrics written down. They do it all from the top of their head, which if true, makes the songwriting even more impressive.

“Nothin’ Less” is another banger that closes the album out strong. It has a surprise feature from DJ Premier, who fits yet another amazing boom bap inspired song. And some people may find the reliance on boom bap influences on this album to be lazy, but I completely disagree when so much of hip hop nowadays is filled with generic, pop radio chasing beats and trying so hard to sound like a Drake song. So I find throwback beats like this be quite refreshing because it pays homage to the roots of the genre and the producers on this album also bring a modern flavor to it, avoiding sounding dated too. And of course it helps to have a great lyricist like Conway to rap over it, as a lot of rappers would get eaten up by the sound.

From King to a GOD is a fantastic proper debut album from Conway The Machine, as he brings his signature sound and high quality lyricism that longtime fans have come to appreciate him for while also bringing a level of accessibility in the music that will surely attract new fans too.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica finally arrived. Years of delays and mystery around one of rap’s most promising young artists at the end of the 2000s and early 2010s is over and now A Written Testimony is here. If you’re not familiar with Electronica, read this summary of the wild and unpredictable path of his life. Electronica signed to the legendary Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation nearly a decade ago. Now on his debut album Hov himself makes an appearance on nearly every single track. Imagine having one of the all-time bests in hip-hop as your side man on your debut album. That’s crazy! But it fits with Electronica.

The album opens with “The Overwhelming Effect,” which serves more as a vignette than song as it’s a monologue from Minister Louis Farrakhan set to a beautiful sounding instrumental. That’s one important thing to note up front with this album: for better and for worse, Electronica’s faith, The Nation of Islam, has a noticeable influence throughout. I don’t really want to give my opinion on the faith itself or any other religions for that matter, as I respect all people’s beliefs. So any commentary I have regarding the religious influences on this album are strictly from a musical standpoint (just like my criticisms of gospel music and Kanye’s latest album in the past on this blog). So as far as an opener, it’s fine and I guess gives a dramatic buildup. But I would always rather hear bars to open a rap album.

“Ghost of Soulja Slim” opens not with Electronica rapping, but Jay-Z. And I have to say Jay-Z sounds as hungry and fiery as ever on not just this song, but the whole album. His bars are catchy, have something to say and get right to the point. When Electronica makes his appearance about halfway through the song, he matches Jay-Z’s bars himself. But the song drags on too long with it’s instrumental at the end and the use of the clip of the kids cheering is really annoying. I feel like this song would have been better as the introduction track, as it doesn’t really have a point and has more of an introduction/demonstration feel to it.

“The Blinding” sees the Jays joined by Travis Scott. And it’s obviously a mainstream/streaming play with Scott’s inclusion. But it’s one of my favorites on the album, as Electronica opens up about the making of this album, the pressure of the buildup of the release and how he never wants to let his daughter down. Despite it’s shortness and Scott being kind of shoehorned in, the song does well at telling a great story and giving the listener an appropriate insight into rap’s biggest enigma. “The Neverending Story” has a fun and spacey sound that envelopes the listener from the beginning and I’m not surprised that it was The Alchemist behind this smooth beat. It’s perfect for Electronica to lay down some of his most clever wordplay on the album. I particularly enjoy these lines: “Spread love like Kermit the Frog that permeate the fog/I’m at war like the Dukes of Hazzard against the Bosses of the Hogs.”

Next is “Shiny Suit Theory,” a song that came out years earlier. I’m glad it’s included though because I love the bouncy horns and glimmering chimes that drive the beat of this song. Electronica himself produced this song and it sounds great. Once again this is a song that gives an insight into Electronica’s thinking and a conversation he had with P. Diddy before dropping his album. The bars from both him and Jay-Z are tight and don’t waste any time in getting to the points they’re making. I enjoy the dramatic production on “Universal Solider,” but the bars feel too same-y to me throughout and the over-reliance of religious references doesn’t work for me. And once again I think the song carries on a bit long like “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

Jay-Z spits absolute fire over great production from Electronica on “Flux Capacitor.” He goes on the defensive over his deal with the NFL and again I love how in the latter half of his career he’s maybe dropping some of the best bars of his career. It’s unfortunate for Electronica though he’s getting out-rapped on his own song and album, but that’s what happens I guess when you have an icon as a sideman on your album. “Fruits of the Spirit” feels more like an interlude than song but it’s still one of my favorite moments on the album. The soulful production of No I.D., one of my favorite producers in hip-hop, and Electronica rapping his ass off (with a sweet Thanos reference to start the song) makes me wish this was a full-fledged song.

I enjoy the different, clinky sound of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and the inclusion of The-Dream as a feature is a great choice on a chiller, smooth song like this one. The bars from the Jays aren’t bad for the most part either. It’s just too long at six and a half minutes. The bars that are bad though is where Electronica raps: “It could be in Lagos, or Seattle, or Chicag-y/Hotel lobby Grammy after-party, it’s whatev-y.” It’s cringe-y and dumb-y. I do not understand why he felt the need to just randomly add y’s to these words other than trying to make his bars flow together better. Despite this baffling choice, Electronica redeems himself in a big way on the closing song of the album, “A.P.I.D.T.A.” Over gorgeous production from Khruangbin (who you know I’ve absolutely praised), Electronica absolutely pours his heart out over heartfelt bars about the loss of his mother. It’s heartbreakingly touching and beautiful personal song from Electronica that shows why his debut album has been so hyped. It’s without doubt the best song of his career.

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica does not live up to it’s lofty expectations and hype, but A Written Testimony is nevertheless a pretty good album. The production is definitely the strongest point of this album, as a cavalcade of all-star producers and Electronica himself create some exciting and interesting sounds throughout the whole album. The bars on this album are mostly good despite some bumps along the way and the overuse of religious imagery. More than anything I’m glad that Jay Electronica is finally releasing music and I think on his next album we’ll see something even better from him. But for now this is a solid debut.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review — Denzel Curry & Kenny Beats’ ‘UNLOCKED’

This was a project I heard about and got immediately excited and then I completely forgot about it. But I’m glad I was paying enough attention to still catch it when it dropped, as seeing Denzel Curry, one of the best rappers in the game today, teaming up with producer Kenny Beats, one of the most promising up and coming producers in hip-hop, had me excited at the potential of this team-up. And after listening to UNLOCKED, the duo definitely lives up to the hype.

Two things I have to point out before getting to the music: the album art is fantastic and a perfect reflection of what you can expect when listening to this project. It also has a heavy CZARFACE influence, as it looks like something you would expect for album art on one of his records. The other thing I have to point out is this was allegedly made in just 24 hours by Curry and Beats, which makes what they create on this short project even more impressive. 

Opening track “Track 01” serves more as an intro, as it features a sample of a PSA and some beats before giving way to “Take_it_Back_v2.” And right away Curry’s furious and forceful delivery takes control, spitting off bars with authority. The beat is sinister and modern, but you can also hear the boom bap influences that permeate throughout this song and the entire album, making for a captivatingly grimy appeal. The bars are humorous and flow together really well, as I especially enjoy the word interplay in the line “You fell in love with kali ma, but now it’s time to take your heart.” 

“Lay_Up.m4a” continues with the hard and funny bars. The most memorable line: “Surfboard body ass boy with your fish tits.” It’s such a fun, shit-talking flex song with some appropriately eerie, ominous beats lurking in the background. “Pyro (leak 2019)” is very much along the same lines, featuring some clever bars around Cee Lo Green. It’s a pretty short song though and that’s probably the biggest complaint I have with songs on this album. This is definitely an album where you need to hear it all together and not broken up to get the full effect of each song.

“DIET_” sees Curry brilliantly channeling Busta Rhymes, sure to bring a smile to anyone who enjoys this style of rapping. This is also the best and most complete song on the album, as everything just ties together perfectly. Curry attacks the beat and it has the best bars on the album too: “One man, ichiban, fresh outta Japan/Do as I command” and “And I don’t like Pixar, mist-er/I am the master, I came through like a (wait a minute).” The latter bar in particularly highlights how great Curry’s flow and approach to bars makes what looks awkward on paper, work so easily and smoothly in execution.

“So.Incredible.pkg” and “Track07” feature my favorite beats on the album, as they’re both smooth and surrealistic. It’s why I enjoy hearing Kenny Beats project: you’re going to get some sounds that you don’t normally hear in a lot of hip-hop projects nowadays. This different and fresh approach, while also drawing from previous influences in hip-hop, is why he’s quickly become one of my favorite producers in the genre today, as I wish more producers would “go out there” with their sound like Kenny Beats.

The album closes with “’Cosmic’ .m4a,” another song where Curry’s rapid delivery is right on point with memorable, hard-hitting bars. I harp on Curry’s delivery once again because it’s so key to what makes this album great. The songs themselves don’t have any big messages and are essentially bangers that focus on delivering fun bars. So many hip-hop albums are like this today and many are largely forgotten because the delivery just flat-out sucks. But Curry brings so much aggressive passion and rawness in his voice, along with his choice of diction in his delivery makes what would be an average banger into something that’s truly memorable. And this big reason is why UNLOCKED is the first great hip-hop album I’ve heard in 2020. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of ZUU (an album I’m ashamed I omitted from my best of 2019 list), this is yet another high-quality project from Denzel Curry (and another great one from Kenny Beats too).

Grade: 9/10