Just a few years ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Valee would be a star. He materialized fully formed in 2015 as a new kind of Chicago rapper. Instead of drawing from well-established lanes—Kanye West’s soulful, sample-driven sound or Chief Keef’s hard-charging drill—he paired elements of Atlanta trap with an elegant but striking flow. Valee is a technician but an understated one, quietly tiptoeing over beats that his peers might stomp on. Before long, the entire industry was leaning in to hear what the monklike rapper had to say. A deal with G.O.O.D. Music, an EP that reworked some of his mixtape material, and a string of hot singles all followed in 2018. But while he remained active on the mixtape circuit, Valee didn’t issue a full-length or any more buzzy singles until last year. In the interim, plenty of rappers borrowed elements of his sound, to the point where his 2022 commercial debut Vacabularee felt a bit stale. With its follow-up, Virtuoso, Valee attempts to reframe his career by approaching his flow the way a chef might a rare ingredient, searching for pairings that intensify his flavor profile.

Virtuoso is a collaborative album with Harry Fraud, the New York producer best known for mixtape-era hits like French Montana’s “Shot Caller.” Fraud’s lush production cuts a sharp contrast to the woozy, minimal trap beats of ChaseTheMoney, whose style defined Valee’s early career. Everything here feels textured: the fish scale arpeggios of “Sea Bass,” the cascading keys of “Uppity,” the mournful organs of “Dutty Laundry.” You’d think Valee’s reedy voice would get lost in all those layers, but the mixing ensures that his bars float above the beats. This sample-based sound is fresh and works surprisingly well for Valee, especially since he never rapped over Kanye West production like other G.O.O.D. signees. The choice recasts him as an artist working within a Chicago lineage, rather than an iconoclastic Midwestern street rapper.

But sadly, like most mid-career rappers, Valee doesn’t sound as hungry as he once did. His delicate touch remains, though his delivery feels a bit muted, more workmanlike than fastidious. There are still a few flashes of his signature charisma: It sounds like he’s muttering under his breath over the chipmunk soul of “Vibrant,” while on “Sea Bass,” he is commanding to match the song’s ascendant tone. Even Valee’s everyman punchlines are less clever this time around. While there are a handful of solid one-liners (“My SS robotic, move like WALL-E”), there are just as many bars that are outright corny (“I slide on you like a trackpad”).

His guests pick up the slack, but the features often highlight their own skill, rather than complementing Valee’s. 03 Greedo continues his dazzling post-carceral run with a verse that raises the stakes from mere flexing to life and death (“How am I supposed to feel about my n****s getting killed/While I was out of town and doing time for doing deals?”). Longtime Fraud collaborator Action Bronson sounds right at home on “Vibrant”; eschewing the exotics that Valee favors, he raps about lifting Ford F-150s and getting sideways in Mazda Miatas. If you had to identify Valee’s exact stylistic opposite, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fit than fellow Chicagoan Twista, who pops up on “WTF,” charging in with his beloved chopper flow before pulling back to a bouncy, old-school cadence.

Virtuoso’s most interesting feature comes from someone you probably wouldn’t imagine on a track with Valee and Harry Fraud: RXK Nephew, the relentless weirdo known for his stream-of-consciousness YouTube dumps, lack of allegiance to any style, and rambling conspiracy theories. Nephew has a tendency to invent new flows on the spot, and here he adopts Valee’s deadpan, but pairs it with a clenched enunciation that makes it sound like he’s spitting through the wire. His delivery starts out flat, but he becomes more forceful as his verses build momentum, eventually punctuating his bars with yelps. Like Valee’s rapping, RXK Nephew’s verse draws power from restraint—but it also feels menacing, inventive, and exciting in a way that Valee doesn’t.

Overall, Virtuoso is a breezy listen: The songs are short, the beats are sturdily built, and the features are well-curated. But as a showcase of Valee’s talent and songwriting, it often falls short. On a technical level, the rapping here is nowhere near the best of his career, and the hooks are often forgettable. While Harry Fraud’s production pairs well with the Chicago rapper’s form, Valee doesn’t show up with many new tricks to take advantage of these beats. The man is a dexterous, sophisticated rapper, but after nearly a decade in the game, it still feels like he has yet to realize his full potential. Even virtuosos need to continually refine their skills in order to stay relevant.