In a time when even the most devoted fans of lo-fi hip hop are often ashamed to praise it for fear of resembling mindless consumers of “beats to relax/study to,” the lo-fi hip-hop sub-genre spins adrift with no true home. In 2014 and 2015, that home was SoundCloud. The stream flooded with lightly toasted SP-404 loops with heavy swing and nostalgic vocal cameos. It was original, it was exciting. Chester Watson held a highly-coveted position back then as the (nearly) sole recipient of these beats.
Ever since, lo-fi has become slightly more popular (to the dislike of its purists), and now it’s largely a meme. This change is not unrelated to the music quality – many lo-fi greats have hit a wall creatively in the past few years. Most of these artists either tapered their release frequency down to an eventual never, or went pop. It appears that Chester Watson hit that same wall, but unlike his peers, he went abrasive.
On Friday October 13, 2017, he dropped “Halloween.” Over a self-produced off-key autotune soundscape, Chester raps grimly about the holiday, implying that it’s a release date. In the SoundCloud description for the track, it reads: “From the Debut Album A Japanese Horror Film.” Since that album never came out, and October 5th 2018 saw the release of Project 0, it would appear that A Japanese Horror Film was scrapped, but according to his interview with DJ Booth, Chester’s still planning on releasing it.
Until Project 0, and aside from his uncomfortable outings with autotune, Chester’s downfalls have been as such: his monotone delivery has little contrast with the foggy looped beats he hits, his projects lack variety, and his songs need more structure.
Project 0 patches these holes with flying colors. It’s anecdotal, it’s vivid, it’s unpredictable, it’s unique. His flat-pitched verses are unprecedentedly engaging in that it’s hard to tell which syllable he’s going to rhyme. Often times, Chester will finish a follow-up bar without rhyming with the setup bar at all, and then start the third bar with the rhyme you were more or less expecting to hear.
He does this on the SwuM-produced “Long Story Short; Life.” He raps, “I was in Topanga Canyon catching waves I feel the breeze on my cheeks still / I wish I was an unknown creature in the deep water / Just so I could say I really know how being free feels.” The word still lands at the end of the setup bar, so it seems like he’ll rhyme it at the end of the couplet, but instead he says water. Instead of leaving it at a blunt non-rhyme, he revisits the still rhyme scheme he seemingly abandoned, by saying feels. Also, the last two lines read as a complete sentence, making his transition across the bar line extra smooth.
Project 0 has superb production from eets, Miroff, Tufu, Psymun, and Yves Rothman. On “Topanga,” Alaskan producer eets lends a light but lumbering loop to Chester, which he destroys nonchalantly. On “Temple,” Psymun and Chester collaborate on a tropical muzak type beat that sounds like it would be found at Honolulu International Airport. They save the 808s for the second half of the song, which is truly the cherry on top. “Chessmaster” has a killer feature verse from Kent Loon and an industrial boom-bap trap beat from Miroff and Chester.
Overall, Project 0 is everything I could have asked for and more. Instead of abandoning his lo-fi roots for abrasive autotune wailing, Chester is back in his pocket and with a sharpened skillset. Maybe off-key autotune intros will be the hottest trend decades down the line, but until then, I’ll be listening to Project 0 and you should be too.