Not long ago, the rapper Chester Watson played a show in Brooklyn to support the release of his short, assured new album, Project 0. After the performance, he and fellow Nü Age Syndicate member Kent Loon met a guy from Italy who knew all the words to Watson’s song “Phantom.” “We were smoking, and he just started spitting it, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” Watson recounts. “He had this super strong Italian accent, too, so it was trippy.”
“Phantom” came out an eternity ago, in 2012. Watson was just 15 then, but you wouldn’t know it — this is impressive, dexterous boom-bap. The sing-song opening lines overflow pleasantly with alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme: “Being hella brash is the swag, bruh/Sittin’ back and I’m gettin’ ass in Nebraska/Different flask in a different class, rolling grass up/Nü Age only spitting facts — no wack stuff.”
Since then, Watson has continued to proselytize quietly for this style, which is mostly out of fashion in mainstream hip-hop. “The world’s vibration needs to get higher,” he says. “I feel like in the Nineties we were in a really high-consciousness level — A Tribe Called Quest were huge, you feel me? Everyone was on that shit, not just a certain group of people.”
In person, Watson is earnest (“Self-doubt is a thing, bro”), warm (perhaps because “Karma really is a thing, you wanna have a good next life”), and fluent in the language of uplift (“You have the confidence in you, but you just gotta find it”). To hear him tell it, encounters like the one with the Italian fan aren’t uncommon. “You have to get your group, and we’re here to be your group if you need that,” Watson explains. “Resonate with us, come share with us. If we’re in your city, bro, come smoke with us. We’re down with everybody.”
Watson’s group is the Nü Age Syndicate; a patch proclaiming his allegiance is sewn onto his jeans. The ensemble includes Loon, Nikola (“visual artist, basketball player, vibe carrier”), and co-founder Shane. “Nobody in the group is the same nationality or race or nothing,” Watson explains. He points to Loon. “He’s Asian, Spanish, Colombian; I’m Native American, black; Shane, he’s from New York, a white dude, and Nik’s from fuckin’ Bosnia. You don’t need to be just one thing. There’s so much in the world, and we just wanna show it.”
Watson met Shane after transferring from a performing arts school where he studied ballet — “I couldn’t grow out my hair, shit was super strict” — to a regular public school in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Shane had the long hair, fat shoes, skinny jeans,” Watson says. “I was like, ‘You look like you skate, do you skate?’ I could barely kick-flip, but he took me under his wing.”
He met Loon around the same time — the two were locker neighbors. “[Watson] was known to be a fringe kid that would rock weird shit, bro!” Loon says proudly. “He could rock it, and it’d look boss.”
Shane, whose ringtone at the time was the Tyler, the Creator song “Yonkers,” introduced Watson to the music of Odd Future and Madlib. Watson was instantly enamored. “Pre-Tyler, I was listening to classical ballet music, folk music — Beethoven, Mozart, Symphony No. 9 shit,” he says. “That type of rhyme scheme [Tyler had], I’d never really heard it before. Ballet was really precise, so that resonated with me in the sense that we had to be really strategic in the way you worded shit.”
As a teen, he decided he’d try to make music himself. “You can do what you want as long as you put your mind to it — have that belief in yourself and the people around you,” Watson says. He skipped high school parties to work with the production program FruityLoops, and honed his rapping over beats pulled from YouTube. He was a quick study.
Watson has put out music regularly for the last six years, but never in the haphazard way that characterizes many contemporary young artists’ release schedules. Project 0 is his first full release since 2016. “I sit there, and every time I listen to it I get a smile on my face — that has to happen before I release,” he says.
On this album, Watson raps with winning nonchalance about thrift-store shopping and self-harm. His cadence is charming — despite his precision, he’s conversational and never sounds like he’s trying too hard. But that ease belies his weighty mission. “A lot of people are just too egotistical to wanna reach into that part of themselves and find the flaws,” Watson says. “My music is full of, ‘Bro, you’re fuckin’ up, you need to tighten up.’ I’m checkin’ myself a lot in my music. A lot of times, it’s hard for people to swallow a pill like that. But nobody’s 100 percent confident in themselves all the time. I speak to those people.”
He sees Project 0 as something to “bridge the gap” to his future projects, including a long-simmering album called A Japanese Horror Film and another one titled Winter Mirage. While he works and waits for that smile-on-the-face feeling, he’s confident that the world’s collective consciousness level will continue to rise. “I feel like history repeats itself,” Watson says. “It’ll happen, because it needs to happen.”