“Thinking Is Free, and Being Creative Is Free Too”: An Interview With Valee

Pranav Trewn speaks to the influential Chicago rapper about the release of his new album Virtuoso with Harry Fraud, experimenting with different sounds, never duplicating a flow and more.
By    August 2, 2023

Photo by John Cotter

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

You remember the first time you heard Valee rap. How could you forget? The slack phonetics of his delivery inverting your brain’s language receptors. The conversational cadences eking a groove out of negative space. Like many, your first experience might have been from the Chicago MCs star-making feature on Z Money’s “Two 16s,” in which Valee’s relentless syllables evoke Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now” verse in greyscale. Or maybe you found him (good job) after Kanye took notice and gave him a label EP repackaging former hits, including a Pusha-T remix of the nursery-like hi-hat crawler “Miami.”

Was it when he inspired Jeremih’s best performance since Late Nights with the tongue-in-cheek bounce of his vowels on “Womp Womp”? Or did you tap in after team ups with other Chicago luminaries like King Louie and Chance the Rapper? Was it the instantly immortal “Griptape’!!” verse (Flacko approved)? Or were you already riding the wave at its origin point with Valee’s numerically titled, independently released mixtapes from 2015-2017?

Because of the many diversions in his catalog – incremental adjustments to what was already a fully-formed-on-arrival vocal identity – there are several natural entry points to the 34 year old’s vernacularly-advanced rhythm and poetry. If you’re currently joining in for the first time, then you’re probably starting with Virtuoso, his new full-length collaboration with the mixtape-made New York producer Harry Fraud. A breezy, sub-30 minute catalog of ear-catching sample swatches, it offers a chance to hear Valee diversify his palette while bending new sounds to his unmistakable center of gravity.

“I was kinda all over the place,” Valee reflects on the project during a call in the days leading up to its release. True, Virtuoso is decidedly Valee’s most expansive project to date: full of splashy color contrast and tonal shifts not unlike its cartoonish mosaic album art. The more luxuriant instrumentals stand in stark counterpoint to the austere low-end rattlers of his early collaborations with ChaseTheMoney. But while Valee proves himself a more adaptive MC than he might have been given credit for, he exudes such a strong sense of self that it coheres without leakage. Every hum, syllable, and pause lands with an intentionality that betrays the pith of his flow – aplomb masquerading as apathy.

That intentionally extends to the guest list, which reflects the quality of Valee’s taste. I haven’t seen a rap record this year with a better curation of complementary features. 03 Greedo, newly free and on a tear, leads a heartfelt and heavy meditation on cyclical violence as yin to the yang of Valee’s spending concerns at the Prada store. No stranger to a Harry Fraud beat, Action Bronson offers ever reliable but no less delectable allusions to basmati rice, Triscuits, and caviar. There’s Twista, a spectacle on any track he walks into, who gives a time-honored tongue turner that reminded me of how it felt hearing “Slow Jamz” for the first time. You even have RKXNephew, bellowing his adlibs and being a vehicular menace –, as well as Mavi, who continues to prove himself among the most inspired young MCs of his moment.

For his part,Harry Fraud is on fire throughout the tape. Valee emphasizes to me his ear for beats as his most valuable skill, that he knows if he’ll rap on a track within seconds of hearing it. Accordingly, all 11 songs on Virtuoso are immediate upon needle drop, and yet open up like a high tannic red as they air out. Fraud fashions the foundation of his beats out of what other producers might consider the bells and whistles, opening up unexpected pockets and movements. The lurching stutter of “Dutty Laundry” heaves with a similar carnal energy as the sweltering production on The Life of Pablo. The neon colored brushstrokes of single “Watermelon Automobile” provide a smooth surface that Saba just glides over.

And yet Valee, with his undeniable on-mic presence, always commands attention. Through sheer efficacy in diction, Valee can transform what might feel like a rudimentary hook and turn it into something profound. “Tell me, how am I sup-posed to feel about that?” he intones, making explicit the question mark and double spacing between every word like he’s trying to hit a page minimum. His slur on “Uppity” sloshes back and forth across the eerie keys with finesse. He does things with the word “vibrant” that does justice to its definition.

Valee doesn’t write in advance of entering the booth, instead giving in to pure instinct the moment the beat drops. The results are phrases that never sound too fussed over, with unorthodox outcomes of offbeat swagger. He can be effortlessly hilarious, like when he coolly raps, “Average bitch ain’t got her waist snatched like mine,” or mean mug with an understated intensity, boasting “When I pull out, drum out, they turn bishop like Mase.” Across Virtuoso, he repeatedly returns to preferred allusions to Hellcats, exotic, and getting head. But within the comfort food approach of his lexicon he’ll apply inventive forms, such as the alliterative attack on “Not Right Now” and the indignant exclamations that make-up the chorus of “WTF.”

For a time, the early buzz made Valee feel poised to be a mainstream fixture, posing a less sinister alternative to the detached delivery of 21 Savage. There was the possibility that he might follow the likes of Drakeo in establishing a hyperlocal genre based on his ineffable sense for speech, Chicago’s answer to nervous music. But in our present timeline, Valee kept digging inwards, never going away but never quite making an entrance again either. Until his commercial debut Vacabularee came out at the tail end of last year, many had been unaware he was still releasing music in the interim.

Valee did not join the current regime of critical and commercial rap heavyweights, but it’s clear in conversation that he pays little mind to those measurements on a career. Instead, he opts to focus on internal metrics of self-improvement, rapping for himself as a means of continuing to best himself. He’s content as an underground fixture, but is hungry to continuously be iterating on the new threads he’s discovered over the last several years on team ups with AYOCHILLMAN and his brother KiltKarter. Or at least when he’s not spending time entertaining his kids or fixing up cars in his workspace, elements of balance in his daily life that he deems as important to his raps as any single recording method or collaborator.

That balance allows him to sustain a bountiful creative pace, exemplified by the fact that he is already working on a sequel to Virtuoso, in addition to having “six or seven other projects finished.” Following a characteristically relaxed conversation touching on his unwavering dedication to Chicago, philosophy on improvisation, and his parenting style of being a “big kid,” he signs off with an enthusiastic promise that “a lot more music will come.”

How have you been lately?

Valee: I’ve been good. I’ve been finishing work, finishing projects. Recording on and off throughout the week, every week.

So you’re still in the studio while getting this project ready to come out on Friday?

Valee: Definitely. I got a new pack from Harry Fraud I’m working on. We’re building a story, and we got a group of songs for the next project.

Glad to hear there’s going to be more coming from you two. When did you first connect with him?

Valee: I’ve been listening to Harry Fraud’s beats for a long time. I love how he produces, the sound that he has. Even though it’s not so fast, like ChaseTheMoney or what I would usually pick. I am always asking my manager, Andrew – Fake Shore Drive – for beats that’ll make me dig and find some new stuff to talk about. Get some more metaphors coming out of me. Awhile ago, Harry reached out, and he had a nice pack of beats. So I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go ahead and knock out a project now.”

Did you always have the expectation this was going to be an album?

Valee: I think I did like, five or six songs in one night. Kind of an accident. Right then, I was like, “Oh yeah, well I probably am just gonna work on a project then.” But every time I get with a producer, if they gimme a pack of beats, it’s my goal to not just pick one beat. It’s really to always try to do a project with each artist.

What do you appreciate about doing a whole project with a single producer?

Valee: Well you never know what a different sound is going to make you say and think of. And I like giving other producers a chance. I’m loyal to my same producers that I’ve always had, so once I work with somebody I pretty much always wanna work with ’em. But I like to be versatile and see what I can come up with. Especially with the AYOCHILLMANNN projects, I really got into the groove with The TrAppiEst Elevator. Now that I think about it, those projects really built me up to have something to talk about for Harry Fraud.

Trace for me these last couple years. You broke out around 2018, when a lot of folks were naming your flow after you. It’s been about five years. So what’s changed between how you approach your work now and then?

Valee: My problem is if I do a flow, like a certain pocket on a beat or something like that, at the time I do that pocket I try my best to execute it the best way that I can. So it’s hard for me to revisit that pocket. What I end up doing is always trying to do a new pocket or a new flow. It’s like when I did “Shell,” even though I made the beat for “Shell,” it’s very hard for me to rap like that again. Because it’s like I’ve been there, done that. I don’t know what beat would bring that back outta me, you know what I’m saying? And I really just always wanna make something new. Just a new pattern of rap, every beat.

That’s really what sets you apart from a lot of other rappers, is this intentionality behind how you say what you’re saying. When you first hear a beat, how do you begin putting together what the flow’s gonna be?

Valee: It’s crazy because that’s really the reason why I can’t always dig into the producer world and make beats myself. Like last time I started making beats, they was pretty good. But then for some reason I couldn’t make a song. I couldn’t make a song for like three or four months. I didn’t like nothing that I was recording, so I would barely record. I just wasn’t feeling the rapper side of things. So I actually had stopped making beats, and then it was like, within a month or so, I was finally able to rap again, at least to my liking.

It’s just like, I have to make sure that I don’t question myself too hard. Because if I hear a beat and I like it – you can ask any of my producers – I’ll hear like, the first two seconds of it, and if it sounds nice, I’m like, “Okay, cut it off, cut it off.” So they hurry up and cut the beat off and they never play it again until it’s loaded on ProTools. When I’m going through beats on my computer or in my notes, I know if I’m gonna rap on it within the first one or two seconds of hearing the beat. I can’t play it too long because then I get into producer mode. I start thinking about the beat and how it was made, because I actually know where every sound is, and then I’ll be in my head.

Does thinking about it that way get you more interested in doing production for other artists? Or are you still thinking about it from the perspective of yourself as a rapper?

Valee: As a rapper. I started with making beats and then I knew I wanted to rap on it, but I didn’t know how I wanted to sound yet. So it started with making beats, but I guess I always wanted to be a producer for myself. Not really to produce for other people unless it’s an accident. Like unless I just made a lot of beats and bounced them out, you know? But I’m really critical of myself. So if I make 20 beats, I may not play ’em ever. Like if I don’t choose any of them to rap on, you’re not gonna hear me saying I got some beats for others.

It’ll take me forever to make a beat, you know? But when I finally make a beat, I rap on it right then and there. Every beat is for myself to make something because back before I found ChaseTheMoney and all of that, I couldn’t wait on nobody to produce for me. I had to make it myself.

Do you ever find yourself curious to explore other styles outside of what you’ve been doing? Do you see a world where we one day get a drill project or a house project from Valee?

Valee: Yeah, like with AYO, we got all these unreleased records. Because me and AYO did three projects for the “TrAppiEst” series: The TrAppiEst Elevator, The TrAppiEst Disco, and then also The TrAppiEst House, or something like that. But it started getting too left field. Like, I didn’t know if people were gonna be ready for this because I’m rapping my ass off and doing metaphors and double entendres and triple entendres. I don’t think people are ready for it just yet, so we got all this stuff unreleased.

But I’ll rap on anything if a beat sounds good. A lot of times I ask my producers for curve balls. Like, “send me some curve balls, let me see what I could make happen on the field out there.” So they’ll send me these unorthodox ones that they wouldn’t think I’ll rap on, or they wanna see what I could do with ’em. And I end up choosing a lot of different stuff, and because I’m rapping the best I can, it’ll actually be nice music.

Stylistically, you tend to run in your own lane, but who’s inspiring you right now? Who are you listening to that is giving you new ideas?

Valee: I listen to stuff around my warehouse, where I work on my cars. Sometimes if I got a couple of my guys over, they’ll be playing stuff on YouTube and Apple Music. Some RKXNephew, some Rx Papi, some Baby Keem. They all over the place. They playing some Glokk40Spaz. Zelooperz is my boy. I play a lot of Zelooperz, from Chicago. I play Fat Money. I’m cool with a lot of people though, so much so I’ll be naming people all day.

But I only listen to people that have a great beat selection. If you’re a person that picks beats that I wish I picked first, you’re pretty much my favorite artist at that time. Or until you stop picking nice beats. Because if you pick nice beats you already have half the talent. If you pick nice beats, you don’t really have to do much to compliment the beat. And then still not that many people pick nice beats.

If you somebody that pick nice beats, when I first discover you I might not rap for a while. Because what you do is you send me back to the drawing board a little bit. I’m like, “Oh, this is nice. Okay, what am I doing?” Let me keep figuring some stuff out.

I’m glad you mentioned some of those names. It was cool to hear RKXNephew on the album. How’d you get connected with him?

Valee: My little brother is also my producer, KiltKarter. We did a project and released it the year before last. Him and his friends introduced me to RX and them. They’ll be over one day and I’m working on a car and they’re playing music. You know how I know I like somebody, is you get me out of my zone. Like, “Who is that? Run that back.” You know? And then that’s it. I’m playing the shit later on when everybody gone. And then I come to find out that he f*cking with my music too.

It’s interesting because while that style is getting really popular now, it’s not that far off from what you were doing back in 2017. People mistook your verse on “Two 16s” as a single take, but you’d actually punched in a couple times. It sounds like that continuous stream, and I feel like that’s a lot of what RKX is doing too, this kind of breathless stream of consciousness.

Valee: Definitely, and there’s not many people that could remember to be all over the place with the subjects and talk about everything only a couple of minutes after they picked a nice beat.

And keep your attention! Like saying something that people are listening closer for.

Valee: Exactly. Saying shit back to back.

You were on a tear for a while with your features. I’m a big fan of Pink Siifu, and your “Griptape’!!” verse is one of my favorites of the last couple years.

Valee: That whole verse was freestyled. I recorded myself and just kept punching in. I didn’t write down anything for that verse. And sometimes I do ask myself, “What did I eat and drink that day? What time did I wake up and what time did I go to sleep the night before?” So I can do it all over.

Pink Siifu my boy too. He came here to Chicago and we were in the studio for a second. I think we got something else unreleased. I definitely like his music, and his beat selection too.

Something else that really stands out to me across all your tapes, and this new one as well, is that you stay close to home with a lot of your features. This new one has Twista, it has Saba. What’s your relationship with the city’s music scene?

Valee: If people reach out to me I’m always open, and I’ll reach out to a couple of people just randomly if I like their music and I really wanna jump on it. Especially if we in the studio or if I hear a song on Instagram and it’s somebody in Chicago, I’m like, “Yo, send me this. Can I get on this?” So I did that with a couple of songs.

I do have a good relationship with the city, and I appreciate that I could rap and do my music and go wherever with no problems. That’s why I don’t wanna move or go nowhere else.

I moved to Chicago last year, and I love the city, but I’m curious how you’ve seen it change being a lifelong resident.

Valee: It seemed a lot more ragged when I was a kid. Everywhere is like changing and developing and coming up. But you know, I’m glad it is. I don’t think it’s bad here. Well I know a lot of silly stuff go on, but I’m glad it’s still a place that I wanna and am gonna be at forever. Because a lot of people don’t believe in like, having a Lamborghini or something here. But I want the cars and stuff that people think you’re supposed to have in LA here in Chicago, and have no problems.

If I was ever gonna sign to a label I’m still gonna be in Chicago. I’m just gonna fly more, you know? I’m still like a big kid, so sometimes I’ll have a show to perform and I may not want to go. The show could be for a great amount of money and the flight could be paid for, the hotel rooms, everything’s taken care of. But my dumb ass may not want to go because I got a car part on the way. It’s like the car part could be arriving that day that I gotta fly out to do the show. And so Andrew also knows if I got a show, he makes sure I get the last minute flight there. Like I’m arriving hours before I perform. And then if there’s a flight out the same night, I get that. I get the first flight out because I really just always want to get back to my shit at home in Chicago.

It’s good to keep balance, and not let your career take over your life.

Valee: Like I wouldn’t rap as good unless I’m able to tackle my other little projects and stuff in life, you know? Sometimes I’ll go from rapping to working on a car to going in the city to see my guys in their crib, go sit down on the porch with them and talk and crack jokes and all that, and then end up at Home Depot getting a backsplash or a floor tile and then doing the bathroom or finishing another part of a project that I had to do in my place – all in the same damn day. But if I didn’t go to Home Depot or do the floor or something stupid like that, I wouldn’t be able to rap to my best ability later on that night when I record myself. If they took cars away, my rapping wouldn’t be what it’s supposed to be. It’s weird, but I don’t really question it. I just try to do it. Try to do what I think I gotta do to be better.

What are the priorities in your life that you try to keep in balance as you do music?

Valee: My kids number one. I love my little ones. They look at me like their hero, so a lot of stuff I do is for them. It’s like I’m the big kid, so any little projects or fun stuff that I have – like cars, mini bikes, mopeds, go-karts, all that stuff – I have to get it for them. Because all they do is have fun with the stuff that I like, so I have to buy small versions for them or just always keep it going for them. Because they look at me as Mr. Fun.

After my kids I don’t really have a specific order. My kids, my family, then it’s music and cars – those are intertwined. I also had a warehouse space that I built out creatively. Over the last couple of years I’ve been doing that off and on at that space, and also looking into remodeling the small foreclosure that I just got. So I’m kind of all over the place, but it’s not overwhelming at all. I just pace everything and come up with the best ways to tackle stuff. The cheapest ways too. ‘Cause everything doesn’t really require the expensiveness that people think it does. For real. It’s different ways to do everything. People be scared that everything they do will end up wrong. But thinking is free, and being creative is free too. So you just need time, and time to be silly and just vent about nothing. You’ll end up creating stuff.

You have all these things that bring you joy, so what brings you back to music when you could be spending all your time on a car or with your family?

Valee: Every couple of days there’ll be a buildup of a few of my favorite people sending me beats. Like maybe my little brother might load me with six or seven beats, and then I work with Zay, one of my brother’s friends who produces, who I’m sharing a note with God knows how many beats in there. So it’s like I get loaded with beats on accident, weekly. I get these little surprises every now and then, and after a couple of days, I’ll probably get in the mood to see what I can do. And I don’t play these beats at all until I have the microphone set up. If somebody sent me a pack, I’m not gonna sit there and play them. It’s like I’m scared to play ’em. I don’t wanna play ’em. I’m gonna mess it up. You know what I’m saying? I gotta play shit only when the mic is out, when the record button is ready. Then I’ll skim through ’em – like literally skim through ’em – and I’ll know from the first couple seconds.

I never know what to say beforehand, but I know what to say right away when I hit record and I hear the beat through the headphones. It’s weird. For a million dollars, I probably couldn’t tell you the first word I would say to a beat that I just pulled up, but then five seconds later I’m rapping. Because I hit record and the shit is in my ear loud, and that make me know what to say.

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