Chester Watson | Fish Don’t Climb Trees

The internet has a funny way of distorting our sense of time. When Chester Watson debuted in the mid-2010s with verbose, technically precise music indebted to MF DOOM, Earl Sweatshirt, and more obscure artists from the stratosphere and the blogosphere, it was as if he was simultaneously from the past and future. Enterprising fans reacted accordingly. Before he was old enough to legally drink, there were “Best Of,” rarities compilations, and .zip files floating through the ether like secret handshakes. Whenever industry prospectors earmarked him as the next big thing, he disappeared back underground, only to reemerge sharper, leaner, weirder.

Though only 26, the St. Louis-born rapper and producer, who grew up between that city, Georgia, and Florida, has seen enough for several lifetimes—and raps as if he’s tapped into many more. But after a few years of highs, lows, and traumatic odysseys, he was able to stare straight into the abyss and conquer it. The. regained confidence is exhibited on fish don’t climb trees, the largely self-produced new album that reaffirms him as one of rap’s great auteurs.

The willingness to both expand his repertoire laterally and dive deeper down each rabbit hole has made Watson’s one of the most quietly rewarding catalogs in hip-hop. In the last half-decade, he’s released Project 0, the apex predator version of the style that he’d been tinkering with since his breakthrough a decade ago on with the heady 10-million-plus streaming “Phantom.” There was A Japanese Horror Film, the full-length album from 2020 that sounds like a small team of assassins being trained in the art of hypnosis, and the following year’s glitchy, percussive EP 1997.

“It definitely changed the way I viewed the world,” he says of this dark period, which included a brush with the law and a since-resolved court case. “It changed the way I viewed police interactions. It changed the way I looked at life: I’m an adult now, the consequences are real, and they can be long-lasting if you allow them to be.”


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