Wednesday, March 23, 2016

album review: 'imperial' by denzel curry

You know, if I go back through my hip-hop reviews over the past few years, I've tended to notice a trend of which I'm certain many of you find exasperating: that even when the flows are good and can connect, if the actual lyrical content doesn't come through in the same way I tend to be a little more harsh. A$AP Rocky, The Game, Logic, Future, Drake, you get the general picture - these guys can flow, but if the content gets recycled or doesn't stand out, I don't tend to connect as strongly. Hell, even though I liked the Flatbush Zombies debut, I'm well-aware that without stronger, unique content, I might not come back to it in the same way. And for once I know exactly why that is: for one, while I like a good hook, when you hear so much music throughout the course of a year, the hooks really have to have strong melodic backdrop or real punch to really stick with me long term. Same with flows: I've heard so many cadences and methods of delivery that only the most distinctive and impressive stick with me - and yet when we come to content, it's not just reliant on pure technical craftsmanship to impress me and taps into a different part of my focus. To put it another way, if you give me a rap song with creative metaphors or really makes me think, I'll probably remember it a lot more than just the newest banger.

This takes us to Denzel Curry, a Miami rapper who is known for some insane, well-constructed flows and some weird, borderline-chiptune inspired hardcore production, but always grabbed me were his blend of raw and visceral gangsta storytelling and a reference pool that could dip into geekier subjects without sounding all that corny. And while I didn't love his debut album Nostalgic 64 - I thought it dropped off in quality on the final third despite having some potent tracks - when I heard his follow-up Imperial this year was going to be tighter, more concise, and even more hard-hitting, I prepared myself for an aggressively potent experience - did I get it?

Well, yeah, I definitely got it, but I'd also argue this album is a bit of a weird listen: easily more hard-hitting, grimy, and aggressive than anything Denzel Curry has released to date, and yet entirely built on the premise of defying the stereotypes that one would expect for modern hip-hop. It's a record that builds itself on subverting and challenging expectations with the force of a sledgehammer to the face, plowing through contradictions by simply weighing them as infuriating reality, which is an admirable approach, but may push the logic too far to hold together under deeper scrutiny. And yet at the same time, it's such a tightly wound and compressed release, full of concentrated fury and bite that might just hold together under its own gravity and personality, blowing through at such speed that it might not even matter.

So let's start with Denzel Curry himself... and look, I don't think anyone can doubt that he can spit with an impressive level of fury and intensity on multiple, fast-paced flows that always show a ferocious investment in his material. And for the most part, this definitely works to his favour: 'Narcotics', 'Knotty Head', 'Gook', 'ULT', 'Sick & Tired', 'Story No Title', when Denzel Curry can get momentum on his side there's not much that can stop him, even in the last case where I found some of the lyrical construction a tad clumsy. And really, for such a tight project there's little in terms of bad lines or clumsy flows outside of a few flubbed rhymes. And while I was initially skeptical about Denzel Curry handling the majority of the hooks himself, I'm reminded of when Freddie Gibbs handled a lot of hooks on Shadow Of A Doubt - they've got enough reverb, control of melody, and punch to never really come across as corny or overdone. Sure, I didn't really love the hooks on 'Pure Enough' or 'This Life' compared to 'Narcotics' or especially 'Gook', but they still play to Denzel Curry's strengths in terms of energy and emotive force. Of course, when you have such a force of personality on record, the guest stars need to step up their game, so while Rick Ross is surprisingly on point with bars on 'Knotty Head', it's a significant comedown of energy that can't help but slow the song. Joey Bada$$ fares better on 'Zenith', but I can't help but feel a little disappointed, especially as his bragging doesn't feel nearly as colourful or interesting as it's been in the past, even through the production favours him a lot more than it does Curry.

And on the topic of production... well again, I'm of a few minds, because it's certainly has the sort of aggressive, hard-hitting trap vibe you'd expect, full of grimy bass, eerie warping synths, and hi-hats that rattle with varying levels of texture or grit. And while by now I've heard so many variants on the sound you'd think that an entire record might get a little stale, Curry pivots against that by both keeping this album moving at a very brisk pace and by adding enough weird and alien melodies to keep the listener on their toes. And for the most part it really clicks, from the oily, glitchy chiptune that plays off the damp guitar tones on 'Gook' to the rubbery bass on 'Sick & Tired', from the sandy percussion and symphonic hook on 'Story No Title' to the incredibly grimy and brittle synth on 'Narcotics' with the genuinely menacing vocal layering and sirens that cut through the mix. The instrumentation that surprised me the most, though, was on 'If Tomorrow's Not Here' with the cowbell, bass melody, liquid guitar, and dirty percussion on the hook - it honestly reminded me of a beat that might have shown up on The Marshall Mathers LP, and it really does connect. Hell, the majority of the production clicks - with the exception of the backing synth on 'Knotty Head'. Granted, it's not bad - the odd, slightly off-key synth melody reminded me a bit of an Arca track of all things, and the hook still connects... and then we get the beat switch-up into a wheedling and still off-key synth line against dirty percussion and without any verse to go over it, it feels like an odd moment of instrumental indulgence on a record that seems far too tight to bother.

But really, for as on-point as the production is, what is Denzel Curry trying to say with this record? Well, initially you might think that it'd fall into typical sophomore underground hip-hop territory: ranting about the industry biting your style, blowing rivals and fakers away, the pressures of touring disconnecting him from his girl or his home, you get the picture. And while all of this does come up in some way, what becomes more interesting is in the details, because starting with 'Gook', Denzel Curry begins setting himself apart. Even if he smokes a bit of weed and carries a gun, he's not a gangbanging goon or gangsta, making a point on the hook of that song to say he doesn't touch purp, given how it killed A$AP Yams. He rages against the stereotypes often leveled as an excuse by police to get away with murder in the public eye on 'Narcotics' and 'ULT' and especially 'Story No Title', where he describes how rappers who came from money adopt the gangsta persona which only further exacerbates the stereotypes. A track like 'Sick & Tired', following the storytelling tradition as a near-sequel to 'Dark & Violent' on Nostalgic 64, shows both sides of that story, both from the desperate poor black man sticking up to survive only to get gunned down by a wealthier gangsta, which doesn't just show him swearing revenge for his friend's murder, but to the police just another example of black-on-black crime. 

And yet Denzel Curry shows he's not talking down to his audience, as the first verse on 'Pure Enough' shows that exact same pressure to conform, especially if it could bring more success... although I will say he does lose a bit for me on the second verse with his lines about how girls should dress if they don't want to be treated like escorts. It kind of runs contrary to one of the biggest hidden tricks of this record, because despite the hyperaggressive tone on many tracks, the message is often more complex and yet if only judged on the surface could be seen as just more trap bangers. And sure, he's got those, but I did miss the more unique reference pool he had on previous releases, which thankfully sneak in most in the extended Star Wars metaphor on 'If Tomorrow's Not Here', where he muses about the best way to define his own path even while lodged in the broken system, with the most concrete answer to keep independent and in his unique lane - which is something only he can really define and control, at least internally.

So in summary, in terms of independent, hard-hitting hip-hop, I'd probably take Denzel Curry's Imperial over that debut from Flatbush Zombies, but only by a little. The tighter production and fascinating contrast messaging, all placed against some of the most ferocious spitting I've heard in a while and some really strong hooks... and yet it's tough to evaluate whether the message's content and tone hold together under a closer look. But then again, Run The Jewels worked a similar path, and ultimately I think Imperial will too. So for me, a light 8/10 and definitely recommended if you're up for some hard-hitting trap hip-hop out of the South that's smarter than many will give it credit. In other words, definitely check this out.

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