Let me preface this review by saying that I’m a big Denzel Curry fan. In 2013, Curry dropped what I had as my number one album that year—”Nostalgic 64″. Then last year, Curry dropped the double ep “32 Zel/Planet Shrooms”, which in some ways is arguably as good as “Nostalgic 64“. No one is making as interesting or frankly as good of trap music as Curry is right now. Part of what makes Curry so great is that although he indulges in some trap rap tropes, he blends enough strange and conscious references into his songs that you’ll never be able to predict what he’s going to say in a verse. He can seamlessly rap about police brutality, Samurai Jack, and Casey Anthony on the same song over a surefire vicious instrumental (as on “N64”). However, “Imperial” is a bit more commercial than Curry’s previous two projects. His flows are still tight and there are still plenty of memorable lines on this album but there are also some generic moments here and a couple underwhelming beats (which is extremely atypical of Curry).
I’ve always lauded Curry for his willingness to experiment. Although the production and lyrical content is more watered-down than his previous work, Curry does show some progression in his hook-writing ability. Curry has always been really skilled at crafting great hooks but this album hosts some of his catchiest, most accessible hooks and songs to date. First of all, “ULT” is up there with Curry’s best songs. Absolute banger. This is a song that is Russell Westbrook-hype. On the chorus, Curry is half-singing, half-rapping the lyrics, “In the night time, keep me out of sight, it’s the poltergeist / When I’m ghost, I’mma cut the line, now you outta mind.” Then Curry follows it up by chanting, “Y’all n****s ain’t ULT!” with enough blunt force to knock a mountain over. It’s one of the best rap choruses ever. The melodic hooks also show up on “Sick and Tired,” part of “Knotty Head,” part of “Pure Enough,” “This Life,” and “If Tomorrow’s Not Here.” The hardcore sound that Curry fans have become accustomed to is still here throughout, but Curry does throw in more singing and auto-tune on these songs than ever before.
Other than “ULT,” other standout tracks include “Knotty Head” and “Narcotics.” “Knotty Head” has an eerie, booming beat. It kind of sounds like one of Rick Ross’ better beats, which makes sense considering that Ross is featured on the track. Ross was a little disappointing on this track—his features on trap songs tend to be pretty good, but he didn’t really add too much here other than letting us know what’s been on his reading list in the line, “Educated, reading books, I’m talkin’ Art of War.”
Despite production that sounds like it was a beat made for Three 6 Mafia in outer space, “Narcotics” is a song grounded in realism, about racial profiling. On the hook, Curry raps, “Why these crackers thinking that a n***a sell narcotics? / Just because I’m living doesn’t mean a n***a got it.” Curry is no stranger to talking about racial tension, dating back to rapping about Trayvon Martin on Nostalgic 64, who he actually knew growing up in South Florida. Listeners who aren’t just looking for beats will really appreciate the conscious side of Curry, a young rapper who clearly pays attention to the world and doesn’t lose sight of the how it affects the people around him.
With as clever as Curry can be, Imperial has its inconsistent moments. “Sick and Tired” is a good song with a killer second verse but it sounds like a less creative and visceral version of Nostalgic 64’s “Dark & Violent.” “Story No Title” features some great flows from Curry and a couple of Curry’s quirkiest bars (“I’m off the top like O-Ren Ishii vs. Uma Thurman” and “Started from the bottom where they wear bikini bottoms / dig even deeper, all you see is crabs in a bucket”) but the beat is forgettable. “Pure Enough” and “This Life” are similar songs, both meant to be inspirational, and even though they aren’t bad, they’re probably the two weakest songs on the album and would fit in well on any recent Meek Mill project.
Overall, Imperial is a decent album. It’s a good introduction to Curry for more casual fans of trap rap. For Denzel Curry fans, they’ll definitely like it but might not find it as inventive or substantial as Curry’s previous work. Still, this twenty- one year-old remains one of the most underrated rappers out right now and deserves the same kind of attention that guys like Joey Bada$$ (who has a decent feature on the track “Zenith,” by the way) have received from critics, festival goers, and hip hop heads alike.