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.
Any informed observer would have him on a short list of the genre’s most promising young voices. And they have: Complex hailed him as "one of the best new musicians." Pitchfork said he so comfortably and skillfully amongst his influences that he already feels like their peer." Pigeons and Planes named him one of "Best 20 artists Under 20.” But still, something felt very wrong. Watson remembers the period just before the recording of fish as one suffused with paranoia.
“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.”
To combat these feelings of anxiety and dread, Watson indulged the nomadic streak he’s had his whole life, bouncing between Florida, Atlanta, and Memphis, where he for the first time spent an extended period living with his father, a touring musician and producer with credits that include Three 6 Mafia. It was during the process of writing and recording fish that he was finally able to see his father play with the funk icons Con Funk Shun, with whom he’s been touring for decades.
Getting more in touch with family, and with the world at large, was a balm for what he’d been through. But finishing the album required seeing himself more clearly, too. A lot of his older work, he explained, had been personal, but in a disconnected way—a confession cut into a jigsaw puzzle. “There was a concentrated effort to be disconnected from it,” he says, to “reveal something, but not too much.” On fish, he vowed to be more true to the emotions and experiences he’d endured.
Being true to those fractured, discordant feelings requires a prismatic approach. And so you get fish’s exhilarating hairpin turns: from downtempo dub (“bora bora”) to 808s rattling through a haunted house (“tourniquet”), beats that sound as if they’re molting into new shapes in real time (the two-song suite of “daze” and “grey theory”) to ones that that plunge to the bottom of a pocket (“spirits”). Over all of these, Watson proves more dexterous than ever as both a writer and vocalist, able to get his point across in ten syllables or two, in a full sprint or with his feet planted firmly in the mud.
The album’s title comes from the maybe-apocryphal Einstein quote, about how a fish judged by its ability to climb trees will “spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” For Watson, this meant embracing the cheery first half of the quote (“Everybody is a genius”), but also being cognizant of the dark undercurrents that flow just beneath seemingly innocent misjudgments and mis-categorizations. “As a Black person, we’re always judged on criteria that are literally meaningless,” he says. With fish don’t climb trees, he’s committed to only one set of standards: his own.