Even for the esoteric Chester Watson, there’s no greater knowledge than self-awareness. This becomes evident across his latest project, fish don’t climb trees, which takes its title from a quote Albert Einstein may or may not have actually said. On the cover, a blurred image of the rapper/producer falling from a forest canopy further illustrates Watson’s efforts to locate his own genius and dodge the pitfalls of judging himself by other standards.

A prodigious talent, Watson has dealt with the perils of comparison since he launched his rap career at the age of 15 with breakout hit “Phantom,” which drew natural but narrow parallels to Earl Sweatshirt and lyrical predecessor MF DOOM. Despite early success, Watson has continued to work on and expand his unique combination of otherworldly instrumentals and virtuosic, monotone raps.

The new album’s journey of self-discovery leans on the surrealist storytelling Watson normally uses to map out the hazy underworlds of his discography. In his songs, his thoughts are often cobbled together from stoned musings and obscure references, creating a hypnotic listening experience to transport the listener to the niche reality of Watson’s choosing. His 2020 album A Japanese Horror Film was a masterclass in this way, but on fish don’t climb trees, he trades references to mythological yokai for the ghosts of his own past.

Still far from transparent, Watson reflects on his personal life in brief asides cramped between existential doubts. “Facing my fears again…,” he chants wistfully at the end of the hook on the opening title track. The album is most engaging when Watson dramatically re-enacts these tense confrontations. On the ethereal “money & love,” the song’s title names “two things I’m battling.” On the outro to “east end,” Watson recounts a terrifying moment of flying into a snowstorm. The mostly self-produced project builds further tension as it pivots between some of the most diverse beat selection of his career, ranging from the loose, jazzy loops on the eponymous intro to 808s and rolling hi-hats on “tourniquet.”

These sudden instrumental shifts push Watson’s raps into new cadences with varying levels of success. On the uptempo “i feel alive,” his clipped flow builds steadily to an explosive, distorted chorus. The payoff is incredible, and the triumphant hook “I’m taking my time with this / I feel alive again” feels like the album’s thesis statement. On “bora bora,” however, Watson’s meandering raps get lost in layered percussion and mesmerizing strings, and the steady march of “east end” stifles an attempt to cleanly rhyme “all the scenes” with “aubergine.” Most of the album falls somewhere in the middle, with verses still adjusting themselves into place.

Through its highs and lows, fish don’t climb trees manages to sound fresh the whole way through, which may be its greatest accomplishment.