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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

You remember the first time you heard Valee rap. How could you forget? The slack phonetics of his delivery inverting your brain’s language receptors. The conversational cadences eking a groove out of negative space. Like many, your first experience might have been from the Chicago MCs star-making feature on Z Money’s “Two 16s,” in which Valee’s relentless syllables evoke Busta Rhymes’ “Look At Me Now” verse in greyscale. Or maybe you found him (good job) after Kanye took notice and gave him a label EP repackaging former hits, including a Pusha-T remix of the nursery-like hi-hat crawler “Miami.”

Was it when he inspired Jeremih’s best performance since Late Nights with the tongue-in-cheek bounce of his vowels on “Womp Womp”? Or did you tap in after team ups with other Chicago luminaries like King Louie and Chance the Rapper? Was it the instantly immortal “Griptape’!!” verse (Flacko approved)? Or were you already riding the wave at its origin point with Valee’s numerically titled, independently released mixtapes from 2015-2017?

Because of the many diversions in his catalog – incremental adjustments to what was already a fully-formed-on-arrival vocal identity – there are several natural entry points to the 34 year old’s vernacularly-advanced rhythm and poetry. If you’re currently joining in for the first time, then you’re probably starting with Virtuoso, his new full-length collaboration with the mixtape-made New York producer Harry Fraud. A breezy, sub-30 minute catalog of ear-catching sample swatches, it offers a chance to hear Valee diversify his palette while bending new sounds to his unmistakable center of gravity.

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“I was kinda all over the place,” Valee reflects on the project during a call in the days leading up to its release. True, Virtuoso is decidedly Valee’s most expansive project to date: full of splashy color contrast and tonal shifts not unlike its cartoonish mosaic album art. The more luxuriant instrumentals stand in stark counterpoint to the austere low-end rattlers of his early collaborations with ChaseTheMoney. But while Valee proves himself a more adaptive MC than he might have been given credit for, he exudes such a strong sense of self that it coheres without leakage. Every hum, syllable, and pause lands with an intentionality that betrays the pith of his flow – aplomb masquerading as apathy.

That intentionally extends to the guest list, which reflects the quality of Valee’s taste. I haven’t seen a rap record this year with a better curation of complementary features. 03 Greedo, newly free and on a tear, leads a heartfelt and heavy meditation on cyclical violence as yin to the yang of Valee’s spending concerns at the Prada store. No stranger to a Harry Fraud beat, Action Bronson offers ever reliable but no less delectable allusions to basmati rice, Triscuits, and caviar. There’s Twista, a spectacle on any track he walks into, who gives a time-honored tongue turner that reminded me of how it felt hearing “Slow Jamz” for the first time. You even have RKXNephew, bellowing his adlibs and being a vehicular menace –, as well as Mavi, who continues to prove himself among the most inspired young MCs of his moment.

For his part,Harry Fraud is on fire throughout the tape. Valee emphasizes to me his ear for beats as his most valuable skill, that he knows if he’ll rap on a track within seconds of hearing it. Accordingly, all 11 songs on Virtuoso are immediate upon needle drop, and yet open up like a high tannic red as they air out. Fraud fashions the foundation of his beats out of what other producers might consider the bells and whistles, opening up unexpected pockets and movements. The lurching stutter of “Dutty Laundry” heaves with a similar carnal energy as the sweltering production on The Life of Pablo. The neon colored brushstrokes of single “Watermelon Automobile” provide a smooth surface that Saba just glides over.

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And yet Valee, with his undeniable on-mic presence, always commands attention. Through sheer efficacy in diction, Valee can transform what might feel like a rudimentary hook and turn it into something profound. “Tell me, how am I sup-posed to feel about that?” he intones, making explicit the question mark and double spacing between every word like he’s trying to hit a page minimum. His slur on “Uppity” sloshes back and forth across the eerie keys with finesse. He does things with the word “vibrant” that does justice to its definition.

Valee doesn’t write in advance of entering the booth, instead giving in to pure instinct the moment the beat drops. The results are phrases that never sound too fussed over, with unorthodox outcomes of offbeat swagger. He can be effortlessly hilarious, like when he coolly raps, “Average bitch ain’t got her waist snatched like mine,” or mean mug with an understated intensity, boasting “When I pull out, drum out, they turn bishop like Mase.” Across Virtuoso, he repeatedly returns to preferred allusions to Hellcats, exotic, and getting head. But within the comfort food approach of his lexicon he’ll apply inventive forms, such as the alliterative attack on “Not Right Now” and the indignant exclamations that make-up the chorus of “WTF.”

For a time, the early buzz made Valee feel poised to be a mainstream fixture, posing a less sinister alternative to the detached delivery of 21 Savage. There was the possibility that he might follow the likes of Drakeo in establishing a hyperlocal genre based on his ineffable sense for speech, Chicago’s answer to nervous music. But in our present timeline, Valee kept digging inwards, never going away but never quite making an entrance again either. Until his commercial debut Vacabularee came out at the tail end of last year, many had been unaware he was still releasing music in the interim.

Valee did not join the current regime of critical and commercial rap heavyweights, but it’s clear in conversation that he pays little mind to those measurements on a career. Instead, he opts to focus on internal metrics of self-improvement, rapping for himself as a means of continuing to best himself. He’s content as an underground fixture, but is hungry to continuously be iterating on the new threads he’s discovered over the last several years on team ups with AYOCHILLMAN and his brother KiltKarter. Or at least when he’s not spending time entertaining his kids or fixing up cars in his workspace, elements of balance in his daily life that he deems as important to his raps as any single recording method or collaborator.

That balance allows him to sustain a bountiful creative pace, exemplified by the fact that he is already working on a sequel to Virtuoso, in addition to having “six or seven other projects finished.” Following a characteristically relaxed conversation touching on his unwavering dedication to Chicago, philosophy on improvisation, and his parenting style of being a “big kid,” he signs off with an enthusiastic promise that “a lot more music will come.”

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