The album cover for fish don’t climb trees, Chester Watson’s second studio album and 15th overall project, depicts the rapper falling from a tree. It appears grainy and pixelated, as if it’s a still from a VHS tape being played on one of those old, bulky CRT televisions. In a similar fashion, the 11 songs that make up the album often begin or end with sound effects that conjure up a suggestion of analog media — the crackle of vinyl, dialogue from a ‘70s film, the sound of a record abruptly coming to a stop. Enthusiasts of the medium (vinyl in particular) sometimes describe it as sounding “fuller” than digital media; something that feels more real or tangible. You can hear the crackle and pop of a vinyl record or the clicks and whirrs of an unwinding cassette tape, but what does playing an mp3 file sound like?
Watson’s frequent evocation of analog media helps provide grounding to a record that feels shrouded in psychedelic abstraction and mystery. His penchant for this style is no secret — his 2016 compilation tape, Past Cloaks, originally had a cassette-only release when it came to physical media — and this is perhaps most blatant on fish don’t climb trees’s closer, “mirrors,” where he raps “my sound is vintage, it always got hiss” before a well-placed sound effect ends his bar. The aforementioned film samples and sound effects used to bookend many of the tracks make the album feel like an old mixtape you might find in your parents’ attic, with bits and pieces of whatever they taped over occasionally bleeding through, almost as if it’s jumping around in time.
Much of the production (largely handled by Watson himself) feels appropriately hazy and ethereal, from the jazzy titular track to the twinkling keys of “daze.” Album standout “tourniquet” forgoes his usual production style in favor of thumping bass and rattling trap drums that eventually culminate in a crescendo of echoing background vocals, lending an eerie, almost otherworldly, twist to his take on more modern production. Watson delves into a Kendrick Lamar-esque vocal switch-up in the back half of “tourniquet” that stands out as a brief,but effective, departure from his usual composed, zen-like delivery. Similarly, the chorus of “bora bora” sees Watson dip his toe into something slightly more melodic without sacrificing his signature mystique. Its instrumental begins sparsely with a single, sustained note before slowly adding and subtracting various instruments throughout until it becomes layered and almost puzzle-like, not dissimilar to his lyrics.
As a writer, Watson comes across as someone who holds a deep curiosity about nearly every facet of our existence; a scholar of history, literature, and the unknown. On the title track, he raps about rendezvousing with African merchants, Egyptian goldsmiths creating songs from the sand, and exploring grey systems theory — which, to vastly oversimplify, boils down to the idea that nothing in a given system is entirely known (white) or unknown (black) — everything is grey. It’s unsurprising that this concept stuck a chord with Watson, who went so far as to name a song after the theory where he proclaims “I live in the grey.” Much of the album sees Watson grapple with not just his place in life or his community or even the world, but in the universe at large. Fish don’t climb trees can be a difficult album to parse sometimes, but that’s kind of the point — it itself is a grey system that rewards those who take the time to relisten to the album, diving headfirst into the spectral and unknown.
Though the idea of something like analog media can help provide the listener a foothold when delving into the unfamiliar and intangible ideas explored throughout fish don’t climb trees, it’s embracing this unknown that provides grounding to Chester himself. He frequently raps about about the spirits and ancestors assisting him in his struggles, whether they’re guiding his pen on “eyes closed” or helping him get home safely on “spirits.” The exact nature of these struggles can sometimes feel vague, but Chester is a strong enough writer that this is rarely to the album’s detriment. “Money & love,” for example, is one of fish don’t climb trees’s best and most introspective tracks, with bars like “look in the mirror, try not to laugh/I just smile I don’t know if I’m really happy but glad/that I always kept it moving despite all of the traps/just another black man just barely making it through the crack” providing the listener with a clear glimpse into Chester’s psyche without clueing us into the specifics.
Despite its abstract, existential themes and uncompromising vision, fish don’t climb trees is a record that remains relatable and distinctly human. It’s an opus about not just accepting, but embracing the unknown, as Chester attempts to navigate the delicate balance between certainties and uncertainties as he finds his way through the world, shedding his cosmic dread in place of cosmic comfort. Like Chester, perhaps we all benefit from finding our place in the grey.