Chester Watson wants to understand his place in the cosmos. The producer and rapper’s new age boom-bap evokes sleepwalking with its narcoleptic rhythms and restless motion; even in the disorienting unreality of dreams, he is constantly plodding forward, searching for answers. His debut album staged his wandering style as a hazy spirit quest through Japanese folklore. On Fish Don’t Climb Trees, the St. Louis rapper strips away the layers of metaphor and murk, aiming for lucid accounts of his shifting thoughts and emotions.
Fish Don’t Climb Trees is titled after an apocryphal Albert Einstein quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” On the title track, Watson mines the saying for both its encouraging sentiment and its surreal imagery. “Just a fish up in the mountains outta my element, feeling at home/Thoughts blank when I’m settling deep into zones,” he raps through a shroud of jazzy bass strums and wispy melodies. His normally groggy voice sounds resonant and clear.
Watson seems renewed: The largely self-produced album features a neater take on his signature sound, which is typically waterlogged and bugged out. The crisp percussion on “Grey Theory” snaps and twists like a color guard. The yawning vocal samples of “Money & Love” billow between the drums. His rapping is just as smooth. He talks a lot of fly shit, frequently mentioning touching down in foreign cities and rocking fresh fits. “Chest out, I be working,” he boasts on “East End,” one of the album’s many flexes. As a performer and producer, he’s still shedding the Earl Sweatshirt, DOOM, and Brainfeeder influences, but those touchstones are increasingly guideposts rather than endpoints.
While this newfound swagger livens his songs, the underlying ideas are still thin. Though Watson casts himself as a roving shaman who lives “outside of time and space” as he says on “Daze,” none of his lines feel truly otherworldly or alien. “Bora bora, aurora borealis/Kingdom hearts I feel like Sora Sora,” he says on the leisurely “Bora Bora.” He more often references the fantastical than evokes it, tossing pop culture allusions into humdrum rhymes. Despite all his talk of third eyes and psychedelia, Watson never manages to produce imagery and word combinations as hallucinogenic as the “endoplasmic reticulum within cytoplasm” of $ilkMoney’s “giant portal wizard snake.” Nor does he achieve the stoned elegance of a ZelooperZ line like, “I say what I want like the bible bitch.”
That lack of style underscores the vagueness of his introspection. He often mentions demons and alludes to personal battles: “Going through struggles but I cannot end it/My heart and spirit got tug of war tension,” he says on “Mirrors.” Sounds intense. None of those scuffles play out in the music though. Any sense of turmoil is derailed by throwaway boasts like, “Walk in the building like, ‘Psh, I’m lit.’” Watson is welcome to withhold, but until he can ballast that reservation with some kind of compelling stylistic or narrative perspective, he’s going to remain adrift.