Ben Grenrock moonlights as a SoundCloud rapper.
Like receiving physical mail from a friend or going an hour without seeing “Trump,” stumbling upon a stellar musician for the first time by seeing them perform live is something that doesn’t happen enough anymore. When it does occur, you’re reminded of what a beautiful thing it is. Invariably, I feel a special connection with the artist from then on; their first impression a memory imprinted on all five of my senses, multidimensional in way that a clicked link and a listen could never be.
The last time this happened to me was three years ago. I was at a Jonwayne show at the Echo. The Wayniac wouldn’t be on for a while and the venue was maybe half full. One of the opening acts slouched onto the stage, a kid—Chester something—who couldn’t have been more than seventeen. Visibly shy, eyes redder than a pair of Lucifer’s zits, looking a little confused at what he was even doing onstage, he pushed play on his computer and began to rap.
“Smoke in front of customers, get ‘em accustomed to it
Lush, fluent in the language of philosophy,
Dangerous like popping 360’s in some soccer cleats
He with it, only living for the days where I sway like the rocking beams”
That’s how the second verse in the song “Chinamen” starts. I missed most of the first one because a voice in my head was screaming “Who the fuck is this guy?! Holy shit! Holy shit!” so loudly it nearly drowned out the playback, let alone the lyrics. But with every bar I managed to catch, I realized more and more that this was something special. This was one of the best young rappers in the game. This was Chester Watson.
Of course, I went home and immediately downloaded the two mixtapes he had up online, Phantom and Tin Wooki. Listened to their twenty-one and twenty-eight respective tracks of mastery until nearly every word the young savant had recorded was burned into my consciousness. His flow was varied, rich, fluid, impeccable. The beats he’d produced himself were nothing short of brilliant—a dark and original renovation of boom bap that cleverly sampled everything from Dragon Ball Z to The Wizard of Oz.
How this teenager was channeling the occult like a Ouija board lacquered with hash oil, while at the same time staying down-to-earth enough to revel in the bliss of a crisp kickflip landed in the company of friends and to rap us through rationalizing his relationship with marijuana to his mom, blew me away.
I couldn’t wait for more. I snagged SoundCloud single after SoundCloud single off the Internet. Let his mature self-awareness and shuriken-sharp wit guide me through alternate dimensions shrouded in shadow on “Origami.” Watched the self-proclaimed, “Enigma with wings” soar ponderously through a hot-boxed cosmos on “Honestly.” Bumped all sixty seconds of “pharaoh” over and over and over.
And then, frankly, I became increasingly disappointed. I watched over the next couple years as each of Chester’s new releases seemed to carry him farther and farther from what I’d seen that night at the Echo. I listened to Summer Mirage so many times and with such determination I started to like it enough to stop skipping its tracks when they popped up on shuffle. I didn’t dislike “Acid Residue” off of 3 of 3. But on Spring Mirage Watson lost me.
Rhyming “hella sake” with “yellow Kawasaki” might constitute an above average couplet from your typical trapper, but it felt underwhelming coming from someone who was spiting, “I’m a Pisces like Poseidon, I roll with a golden trident…Used to be a fish but then I grew to a leviathan/ Outfit is all black and hella fly like my psyche is,” when he was just fifteen years old—and on a self-produced beat no less. On Spring Mirage there were faint glimmers of what made Chester Watson great, but they were usually a single line, shining brightly out of a dense bracken of auto-tuned over dubs like a lost set of grills in a pile of mulch.
Who am I to say what an artist should or shouldn’t do with their art? No one. I’m just a hip-hop head who drinks a lot of coffee and likes rappers who compare themselves to Egyptian mythological figures and describe possessing large quantities of marijuana as having, “More green than a winter sneeze.” Only Chester can really say what Chester Watson ought to sound like. And yet, his departure from his early style actually, almost embarrassingly, kind of hurt. The dude was so young and so promising.
A room full of bored Jonwayne fans—a population with monolithic standards for both lyrical content and production—who’d never even heard of Chester had been stunned into awed silence by an early performance that was far from polished. I’d thought—maybe all of us there had thought—this was the beginning of something truly great.
I stopped trawling his SoundCloud. I wondered what had gone wrong. I prayed to Biggie’s ghost that it was just a phase.
It seems the Great Notorious One has heard my prayers.
Over the last two months Chester Watson has proven himself to be undoubtedly, unequivocally, and entirely back. A string of scintillating features and an absolute gem of a beat can be found on a SoundCloud playlist entitled, “Nü Releases,” all posted since April. Chester’s nü nü is beyond just a breath of fresh air; it’s a return to form that recaptures all of the best things about the Florida-by-way-of-St.-Louis prodigy and shows marked growth from those cherished, early mixtapes.
Listening to his lyrics on these recent tracks, it seems there may have been something more than just experimentation behind Chester’s temporary shark-jump.
“I used to bathe in the darkness…
Soulless with no heart is, all that I managed…
Carnage as hard as the panic, be with the stars
Breathing on Mars and Atlantis…
keep it on par it’s a gamble, leaving my heart was a gambit
needed to spar with my demons please don’t regard it as fantasy”
On and on go the candid and masterfully stacked internal rhymes of “Phases,” produced by Lynn Avery. Chester spits with commanding poise as he reflects on learning how to grow through and cope with some seriously challenging times; times that must have impacted his artistry while he was lost in their grip.
He no longer sounds lost. He never sounds unsure of himself. He never sounds anything but authentic as he navigates the maze of syllables he’s built for himself to prowl. These struggles, so eloquently sketched on “Phases,” make the pure joy palpable in Chester’s voice on the song “Portal,” all the more powerful and redemptive. He spits with a confidence that comes from seeing life fall apart around you and then coming out the other side still on your feet—an earned swagger that can only come from lived experience. His new work sees him embodying that confidence completely.
It’s no surprise that the best of these new songs are the two produced by Psymun, an incredible beatmaker from the Twin Cities whose past collaborations with Watson have, without exception, been flawless. Chester takes full advantage of the lush tones that erupt on “GENBU (OTOH GUNGA),” rapping in a playful rhythm that suits the beat perfectly and contrasts well with his deadpan delivery. On “GENBU” Chester reclaims his identity, sauntering back into the skin of a dude whose work ethic, loyalty, and encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural is as inspiring as, “hit[ting] the beach on a shroom cap flying saucer/ with an old friend.”
But it is “Glitch Tundra” that towers above all of these fantastic tracks. It’s a song that works so well, no amount of listens can stop it from eliciting goosebumps. Psymun’s production is nothing short of breathtaking: a debaucherous cyberpunk séance igniting the desolate plains of the underworld. Chester stalks its banks of enchanted fog like a panther, chanting spells from a grimoire or rhymebook (it becomes hard to tell the difference), raising an undead army of resurrected fans while he casually sips on a beer. It is that good. The little rhythmic flourish he twists into his closing line is executed with the showmanship of a stage magician; one so skilled you start to wonder if what you’ve just seen might have been more than just illusion.
I’m clearly not, but I wouldn’t be able to hide my excitement for the resurgence of Chester Watson if I tried. As he puts it on “Moon Is Out,” “The music got me drooling clout/ high as fuck, life got me feeling like Vesuvius mount.” I couldn’t agree more. If these magma-drool-inciting bars are what Watson is spitting on his features, I can only imagine what his next full release will sound like.
These new songs are more than just the reclamation of an old style. They are a testament to resilience, artifacts of hard earned growth in the face of adversity. Early success, depression, drug use, and who knows what else temporarily left him a pile of auto-tuned ash, but instead of arising from it as a phoenix, Chester Watson has returned a full fledged, metal-wigged dragon. On “Floating Castle” he gives a step-by-step account of how he managed it:
“Dropped a couple drugs for my passion…
Quasi-sober I was stoned,
Look around and see the rubble of my past self
Pick it up.”
This couldn’t have been easy, but Chester has certainly been able to “Pick it up” and to build something gorgeous from the pieces. I’m damn proud of him.
Praise be to the B.I.G. Smalls in the sky.