There's something bubbling in the heat of the Sunshine State. Given the wide geographic swath crossing cities and counties, you might not have noticed that Florida is home to one of the most unique rap scenes in the country. This isn't just eccentricity; the money is coming in, and while there are issues the Chicago rap community can relate to as far as reaching across the aisle, there's a lot to be excited about. Look at this year's 2016 XXL cover and you'll see Kodak Black and Denzel Curry straight away, two rappers who are far from conventional but who somehow represent the saner side of things in the wild Southeast scene. Yes, the Florida aesthetic is a strange one, kicked off by RVDXR KLVN years back and continuing on to this day, a dark response to allegations of permanent fun in the sun. Coming out of Clearwater, Florida, by way of St. Louis and Atlanta, rapper and producer Chester Watson is one of many voices on the come-up in this hodgepodge, one well worth hearing out.
Chester Watson certainly isn't easy to pin down with one sound. I can't help but imagine trapping to Boards of Canada when I hear Watson vibe out, exploring each and every sonic possibility as a rapper. He's enamored with texture, a producer's producer on top of his rapping, laying thick, luscious beats that at times say as much as his lyrics. The sound of his mixtapes, albums and loosies range widely but a common thread of psychadelia, one rare in rap music, is ever present. This is without a doubt a strength; rather than floating by on genre or wave, Chester Watson knows lyrics, knows how to keep aesthetics full and interesting, and can make any vibe work with those key ingredients. The first and last secret is keeping it honest, and keeping it weird.
Repping his collective Nü Age Syndicate, Chester Watson came out hot in 2016 with two album releases, Past Cloaks and Spring Mirage. Both are quite different than each other, and the projects are a good microcosm of how Chester Watson approaches his raps. Past Cloaks is almost boom-bappy, with influences of MF DOOM / Dangermouse and Earl bleeding through (and more than welcome). Compiling verses that Chester Watson had accumulated throughout his teen years, Past Cloaks is fantastic project, washed out with crackling, warped tape fuzziness yet astoundingly clear. Both the production world-building and Chester Watson's vision of library dense lyrics to convey hearse-dark material are communicated fully. These are heady raps bordering on trip-hop, lyrical voyages into a strange, humid mindstate, all the more impressive given his young age at the time.
Spring Mirage pivots in another direction. The material is all brand new, a fresh addition to his Mirage series. Experimenting with the more popular stylings of today, albeit the left-field version of that, Chester Watson dives into heavy bass lines and a leaned out flow; the turn-up rap has been flipped upside down. The project is a collaboration between him and Kent Loon, a fellow Nü Age Syndicate rapper from St. Petersburg, Florida who greatly adds to the project. Kent Loon isn't the wordsmith Chester Watson is (few are), but rather than matching Watson's methodical flow offers verses that stutter and spurt with force. It's a high-energy intensity that's a necessary ingredient for forays into the more mainstream rap of today's world. Once again, Spring Mirage is a definite divergence from Watson's usual approach, but offers proof that the artist can adapt to whatever the future might throw at him.
Chester Watson is but one piece of the puzzle that is Florida's rap movement. He's not just any rapper, certainly not cashing in on trends, but a gifted artist with top-notch skills as a writer, producer, MC and creative visionary. Chester Watson is a rebuttal of criticisms that the Florida movement is simply grimy aesthetics, contrasting the state's neon stereotype with devilish imagery. That shit is cool too, but Chester Watson is going way deeper down the rabbit hole.
Winter Mirage LP out November 11th.