First Listen #13: Denzel Curry’s ‘Imperial’

LOL yes I’m back to talk about Denzel Rae Don Curry again. I think I mentioned in a recent story-

Hold on…let me find it…

Oh yes, in the Album Look Back for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book (2016). I mentioned that Saba was my favorite artist outside of Tyler the Creator and Kanye, but I have since re-evaluated. And I think it’s actually Denzel Curry lol. I think the dozens of times that I’ve mentioned him on thursday email show that. I watched the video for City Morgue’s “Draino” (featuring Denzel – great song, great video!), Denzel’s “DIET_” COLORS performance, and “VENGEANCE” by Denzel (featuring JPEGMAFIA and ZillaKami) right before I starting writing this, and it really just solidified that I love Denzel and that I can no longer pretend like he’s not my fave. Another part of me realizing that I ❤ Denzel was the strong urge I had to want to listen to his pre-TABOO projects, which led me to the last First Listen where I talked about Nostalgic 64 (2013) and to this First Listen where I finally listened to Imperial (2016), the album-precursor to TABOO (2018).

Imperial is a solid project, and a great transition album from Nostalgic 64 to TABOO. The project starts off with the hard-hitting “ULT.” I remember in English class, my teachers used to always say that the beginning of an essay needs to hook the audience in, while leaving them wanting more, and I think that’s exactly what Denzel did on “ULT.” The next song, “Gook,” gives us more bars set to some great production from FnZ and Ronny J (It was so weird to look on Genius while listening to the song, see that FnZ helped produce it, and not hear the signature “Fnz, oh damn! ” at the beginning). On the track, Denzel details the benefits to being considered an odd ball or a lame. People underestimate you, and that’s only more ammunition to want to go harder; the underdog truly does always win in the end. It was also clear to me at this point in the project that Denzel’s singing voice has gotten SO MUCH BETTER over the years; it’s not bad on this, but he really does sound more confident in his singing abilities now.

“Sick and Tired” reminds me a lot of “MAD I GOT IT” from TABOO, in that both songs talk about how having money doesn’t save you, though this one feels a little more personal. While the project as a whole is a bit of a tribute to where Denzel grew up (I’ll talk about that a little more towards the end), this particular song talks about the dangers of him continuing to live in the same place he grew up after “making it.” Having money now makes people think he changed; it makes Denzel a target. And eventually he gets “sick and tired” of needing to constantly watch his back and question the loyalty of people he’s been around for years. It’s easy to have something like that happen and feel empowered by it, but this song doesn’t glamorize the difficulties of living with all of that.

I loved “Knotty Head.” Denzel and Rick Ross are an undefeated combination, and I could honestly go for an entire Miami-inspired Denzel Curry-Rick Ross mixtape. I love how Ross’s slower flow matched up with Denzel’s faster flow. It felt a lot less clumsy than Robb Bank$’s flow on “Threatz” from N64. “Me Now” gives me very strong Kid Cudi vibes, similar to “A Day in the Life of Denzel Curry Pt. 2” from N64, but this time I feel like Cudi should have been on this song lol. There’s something about how Denzel raps some of the lines in the verses that give me Man on the Moon. Even the chorus is very Cudi. I love the production, too. It’s not my favorite song, but it’s decent. (SIDE NOTE: WHY HAVEN’T DENZEL AND CUDI DONE A SONG TOGETHER???)

I wasn’t really feeling the next two tracks. “Story: No Title” was good, I just wasn’t a huge fan. And “This Life” – LOL Denzel really keeps throwing me off with these love tracks lol. The last three songs were solid, though. “Zenith” with Joey Bada$$ was amazing! The production is great and feels very natural to both Joey and Denzel; I could see them both individually making a solo song with this instrumental. They both ATE their verses. “Good Night” was also great. It immediately made me think of Buddy. The song gives me “Hey Up There” vibes mixed with “Trouble On Central” from Harlan & Alondra (2018). Buddy described some of the songs on H&A as street gospel, and I think I can get with calling “Good Night” the same thing. It feels both spiritual and grounded in reality.

And the last song, “If Tomorrow’s Not Here,” is my favorite song from the project. There’s something very “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” from Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2013) about it. The Steve Lacy production is so so good! I saw his name on the production credits as the song was starting, and I couldn’t imagine what the song was gonna sound like or if it was even gonna be good. But Steve’s production and Denzel’s vocals come together really beautifully. Twelve’len came through with some amazing backing vocals as well. I love the idea of Denzel finishing the project off on a note on making the most out of your time on Earth. It feels very…I don’t know…there’s just something about it.

Imperial was a pretty short project, but I did enjoy it. It, once again, shows Denzel’s RANGE as an artist and rapper. He never gives us the same sound twice but does it in a way where everything sounds like it goes together. This album also made me realize how much of an anomaly TABOO was. After listening to ZUU (2019), I thought ZUU was the “different album” (which how would I know that if I only heard one project from him at the time lol?), but it’s clear that telling stories about Carol City has been something that Denzel has been doing his entire career. I actually think ZUU feels like the grown up version of Imperial where Denzel has had some years to grow his sound and voice; the story is very similar, but the sound feels more developed on ZUU than Imperial.

Anyway, Denzel’s the best. I’m excited to finish up my Denzel project catch up; it’s really bringing him together more fully in my mind, and I’m here for it!!!

Overall Album Rating

Featured Image Credit:

(listen to Imperial on spotify by clicking the image below)

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