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Courtesy of POW Recordings

February 10, 2016

TEST SPIN: Chester Watson — Past Cloaks

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Stoned teenagers are responsible for some of the best hip hop ever made. The wise sages of today were the blunt-rolling kids of 10 years ago, and by that logic precocious Chester Watson could have a great album in him someday. His new tape, Past Cloaks, is not an album proper, but it’s pretty great nonetheless: woozy and dense, hyperverbal and unintelligible, simple yet complex.

But Watson himself is a terrifically wordy millennial who compiled Past Cloaks from his recent run of mixtapes. He hails from Florida, but his music bears little resemblance to the trap music that dominates Southern hip hop. This makes sense, because as anyone who’s lived in Florida will tell you, big parts of the state are more or less culture-free, a mishmash of very different people who happen to live in close quarters. Accordingly, Past Cloaks is a journey through inner space, not the outside world. There’s little to no reference to specific places, people or events. This is the Madvillainy approach, the idea that rap music can exist in a Platonic space of abstract wordplay rather than the spatially grounded hip hop of Compton, New York and Toronto.

So on Past Cloaks, it’s you and Chester and not much else: no big features, no out-of-nowhere left turns. With its muted, dissonant beats, vintage film samples and rainy mood, the whole album seems to be shot in black and white, and Chester’s unchanging voice is another shade of gray. This could be from the smoke —  “Get stoned and see the world in sepia,” he says on “Dead Albatross” — but it’s also the mental space in which Watson finds himself, a melancholic young pseudo-philosopher more interested in fucking with words than finding truth.

His influences loom large: most obviously MF Doom, from whom Chester co-opted his drawling monotone and taste in beats (he even tries, like the supervillain, to keep his real identity secret). Watson wisely acknowledges the debt — he shouts Doom out on “Purple Leaves” and “Creed.” But Doom’s key advantage is that he deploys his style to create a distinctive persona. This is about two steps ahead of Watson, who nails Doom’s cadences but hasn’t built a mythology around himself. Instead, he’s one of the first post-Odd Future rappers, a kid who internalized Tyler and Earl’s druggy flows without grabbing the shock-value nihilism. He’s also decidedly post-gangsta; a former ballet dancer, Watson is more likely to rap about his mother complaining about his pot use than street violence.

Watson can rap his ass off. He already has the precise, controlled flow of a professional, and his thick monotone spreads over the beats like peanut butter. A typical verse is packed with internal rhymes: “While the plot’s thickening, liquor shots quickenin’” If he has room to grow as a rapper, it’s in creating memorable images, since he hasn’t yet mastered the balance between displays of technical skill and quotable lines. His flow sounds great, but the focus is on the sound of the words themselves, not their meaning. He could emulate Bobby Raps, who steals the show on “Spliffs” with a few well-placed one-liners: “Your bars like Rey Mysterio, they on the ropes! / I don’t give a fuck what your man said, I got more bars than a light-skin Xanhead.”

“Wicked” is how Watson sounds at his best. On it, he flips a key sample from The Wizard of Oz — the tense orchestra build as the tornado touches down in Kansas — and loops it into a menacing haze. In Oz, the song is the point at which Dorothy breaks from black-and-white Kansas into Technicolor, but Watson is trapped in the gray. He lets the strings slide up and down, with no resolution, and tops them with a doomy verse: “I leave my words slurring like the seasons / End of days comin’ soon, check it, that’s my thesis.” It’s a fantastic song, with a dark undercurrent and a sample so obvious and perfect that it’s surprising it hasn’t been used yet.

Past Cloaks is full of gems like this. The moments on “Yetti” when the psychedelic, hazy keys behind Watson resolve into shimmering chords are just lovely. The twinkly “Phantom” and skewed “Execution” recall the experimental production of the RZA, with Watson casting himself as a bratty young Genius. On “Dead Albatross,” his images are disjointed but powerful: “That shit was vivid as the smokescreen and analog / Heroining, fending off the demons wearing camouflage.” The lyrics and samples on this thing follow their own free-associative, stoned logic that takes a few listens to follow.

This is a mixtape, not an album: there’s no real arc, no central theme and little attention paid to sequencing. Creating a project that hangs together is one of his next challenges, and another is creating a more distinctive persona in his music. Past Cloaks demonstrates raw talent, but you don’t get much about Watson himself. The ability to rap well is distinct from the ability to create an on-record voice that people like and return to, but it’s also a prerequisite to it, and at least Watson has bars.

Does he have star power? Probably not — after all, none of his heroes are stars. But this mixtape is a prime cut of alternative hip hop. Bratty teenagers are responsible for more than a few hip hop classics; no one is saying Watson’s going to do all that, but no one is saying he couldn’t, either. Mainstream stardom looks unlikely, but another Operation: Doomsday or Bizarre Ride 2 The Pharcyde is within his reach. The guy is going places: get in on the ground floor.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. 

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