Valee, Kanye West’s New Signee, Is a Rapper Who Just Might Build You a Koi Pond
Posted May 7, 2018 5:04 p.m. EDT
Earlier this year, on the set of his first major music video, the rapper Valee was hemming his own clothes.
The shoot for “Miami,” featuring hip-hop godfather Pusha T, who doubles as the president of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, was meant to announce Valee, a 29-year-old from Chicago, as the latest addition to the tastemaking label. But instead of acting like a newly minted star, leaning into a world of stylists and on-demand everything, he brought a sewing machine from home.
“I put stuff together,” Valee said with a shrug during a recent trip to New York. It was an understatement, but also an all-purpose job description, one that hinted at the motivations of a man who is less a born rapper than a detail-obsessed DIY aesthete, always looking for a fresh creative angle.
While honing his music, which he often self-produces and records at home, Valee has turned odd hobbies into odd jobs, toeing the line between eccentric and modern-day Renaissance man. He does carpentry, construction and electrical work, and builds koi ponds, too. He customizes fast cars — full-size and remote control — and cooks. He’s tattooed others, as well as his own arms and legs.
“I talk to a lot of rappers and people in the industry,” said Andrew Barber, Valee’s manager and an influential fixture in Chicago rap music. “Nobody else has ever offered to come build a bar in my house.”
Valee, obviously, is not your typical rapper.
At a time when lines have blurred between viral jester and professional musician, especially in hip-hop, and a new generation of stars has come to prominence via extracurricular antics (and, sometimes, heinous crimes), Valee is a low-key anomaly. He has only a perfunctory social media presence, no scandals or performative beefs to his name and, as a bit of a loner, comes unaffiliated with any existing movements or microgenres. At nearly 30, with two children and three dogs (Furrari, Ravioli and Sophia), he is basically ancient among those to spawn from YouTube and SoundCloud.
“All these people that go extremely viral, I can’t name you one damn song they’ve made,” Valee said, in reference to his disruptive contemporaries like 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion. “You just know them through being silly.”
“I’m real easygoing,” he added. “I don’t look at the view counts, I don’t look at the comments — it’s a distraction. I would just rather be busy waiting on the next beat, so I can say something better than I just said.”
That head-down, music-first work ethic has paid off gradually. Valee’s first commercial project, the “GOOD Job, You Found Me” EP, was released in March and executive produced by West, who before his recent theatrics, brought Valee into the G.O.O.D. fold.
“I just felt proud of being able to tell my mom that ‘Ye reached out,” Valee said, adding, “He saw that I built on my own with a small team.” In keeping with the times, Valee has continued to release a steady stream of new songs and distinct, minimalist music videos as he builds toward a body of work worthy of a proper debut album. “I have probably 250 songs in the chest,” he said, “but I want to increase the quality.”
Valee had been quietly releasing music online for a few years, developing a taste for murky, midtempo beats with blown-out bass, before he found a plugged-in booster in Barber early last year. The proprietor of the blog Fake Shore Drive, an early megaphone for breakout Chicago acts for the last decade, Barber was initially struck by Valee’s video for “Shell,” which, at one minute and 49 seconds, said it all.
“He had a fully formed thing,” Barber said. “It wasn’t something that you hear in this era, but it sounded current. And he just looked cool as hell.”
And while Chicago’s musical reputation has bifurcated into the hyperaggressive drill sound popularized by Chief Keef and G Herbo or the theatrical positivity of Chance the Rapper and his acolytes, Valee was neither. Yet he “was being embraced by both scenes,” Barber said — as likely to be played at a downtown hipster club or a strip club on the far South Side.
Nonchalant on a track, in a way that indicates casual mastery, not laziness, Valee might mumble in tight, clipped flashes of melody or unleash a tumble of sly tongue twisters, as on his budding cult favorite “Two 16’s.” (As one Twitter user memorably put it, “valee raps like an old-timey tiptoeing burglar.”) Though his songs only sometimes clear two minutes — “There’s so many choices,” Valee said, referring to the streaming economy, “so you’ve got to put people’s favorite part in that little amount of time” — his vivid writing in impressionistic bursts keeps standard fare (cars, clothes, women, guns) sounding fresh and often hilariously specific.
“Spent $1,200 on a Yorkie,” he raps, “fed it Benihana’s food.” Elsewhere, an airport salad functions as a hiding place for marijuana and a custom vehicle (“Super Sport with frog eyes”) winds up “double-parked at Five Guys.”
Paul Rosenberg, the new chief executive at Def Jam, which oversees G.O.O.D., and Eminem’s longtime manager, called Valee “an authentic and infectious standout,” citing “his immediately recognizable voice and melodic cadences.”
The rapper, he said, is “exactly the type of artist we are excited to help build a fan base and career with.”
Valee, tortoiselike, said he is chasing stability. Still, one of the downsides of not jumping up and down for attention in an oversaturated field is that, well, sometimes you don’t get attention.
While the Lil Pumps of the world are clocking nine-digit view counts on YouTube, Valee has yet to hit a million with a music video. “I feel like I’m still developing,” he said, invoking his constant “we’re-not-there-yet-type feeling.” In what might be seen as a market concession, the recent Valee video for “Skinny” was directed by Cole Bennett, the Hype Williams of the SoundCloud boom.
Barber said that a big part of his job was to get Valee to come “out of his shell and be a celebrity.” Backstage at a private show for New York University students, Valee’s DJ and producer Rio Mac got in on the cheerleading, too, urging his friend to hype up the college crowd. “I want you to stick your chest out,” he said. “You’re like a sex icon.”
Valee demurred. “I’m an old man,” he said. “A big weekend for me is Home Depot and a Caesar salad.”
Earlier, touring the vintage seven-figure merchandise at Cooper Classic Cars in the West Village, he was similarly fixated on the little things, earning affection from the shop owner for his appreciation of obscure details and his poetic longings.
Referring to the new, ground-level warehouse apartment he has been building for himself, Valee said wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to pull my classic car up directly to my kitchen, get out and leave the groceries right there.”
But press him long enough, and he will admit to less elegant ambitions, as well. “I want chart-topping records — all of that,” Valee said, leaving the luxury cars as his friend played the breakout hit “Look Alive,” by Blocboy JB, featuring Drake. “I would love to one day have 100 million views on something.
“What’s the song, what’s the beat? I don’t know,” he added. “But I can’t wait.”