In a summer spent making public statements seemingly designed to provoke controversy, Kanye West has said precisely one thing that shouldn’t garner any arguments: “Valee’s style is the most popular in rap, period.”
Valee — the Chicago rapper who became a star this year after signing with West’s G.O.O.D. Music on the strength of his mixtapes and hometown love — isn’t the most popular newcomer in hip-hop. (That’s likely Juice WRLD, his Chicago compatriot and sudden Top 10 hitmaker.) Valee, though, is the most influential by far. If you haven’t listened to him yet, odds are you’ve heard someone that’s copying his strangely soothing sound. Just look at the way SoundCloud artists like Lil Pump and 6ix9ine, defiant anti-technicians, are beginning to debut new, more complex flows (often with clumsy results). Most tellingly, they’re getting softer in tone.
All of this can ultimately be traced back to the way Valee raps. His verses sound quiet on the surface, but they conceal complex flows and consistently surprising wordplay. “Some people say on Twitter that I’m whispering,” says the 30-year-old artist, who until relatively recently was making his living customizing cars. “I’m just laid-back and not too loud, and kind of shy a little bit.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Valee to talk about his beginnings, and how he feels about becoming the most imitated rapper alive.
When did you start rapping?
I guess when I moved out into my first place, about five or six years ago.
That’s kind of late, compared to other rappers.
Yeah, well, we’ve been putting out music for about three years, but I started knowing I wanted to start trying to rap or make beats before then. I wasn’t comfortable, and didn’t really release anything or really make anything I liked until a couple years ago.
What attracted you to music?
Really, I’m into cars. So every time I would drive my car I would have to have music to play. That’s kind of the only reason I kept up to date on music. It was liking to drive, liking cars.
This is when you were working on cars? What jobs were you working then?
Really no jobs — it was things I did for myself. Other people would see it, and want it for themselves. I never told people I do it, or hand out business cards or anything like that. But if I was cutting my car to make a wheel fit, then people would come to me to get their car customized, put big wheels on. That’s just what I’m doing in my mom’s garage.
How did you learn how to do those things?
Just wanting it done for myself, being impatient. When I wanted wheels on my car, I want them on now. And the person isn’t ready, or maybe they can do it this weekend — it’s just, that’s ridiculous, so I do it myself.
How did that turn into you making music?
Just being bored at home, went and purchased studio monitors and microphones. The simple stuff, so I could record on a laptop. I got all the necessities to produce and rap.
Did you have an idea of where it would go from there?
No, not really. I always like putting my all into everything. Everything turns out good. Whether it’s rewrapping a couch or whatever, I just think about it a lot — a lot — and then I do it. And it always turns out good.
For the last couple of years, the dominant style has been rapping loud, but you’re a quiet rapper. There’s a lot of emphasis on subtlety. Is that just your personality?
Yeah. And the place I was at, I couldn’t be too loud. Some kind of way, it turns out a lot of people like that style of rap. I really didn’t notice right away that I maybe rap a little quieter than everybody.
Is there anyone that you were listening to when you started that you wanted to sound like?
I used to listen to Cash Money and a lot of Project Pat. I used to listen to whoever had the best production or beats, or whoever was hot. Whoever you could ride around the neighborhoods with loud music, who the cars wanted to hear, with loud speakers and loud bass in the trunk.
A lot of people are getting accused of stealing your flow and starting to rap like you this year. Do you think that’s been happening?
Yeah, definitely noticed that. It happened fast. It started happening, then it happened fast. More and more people. But I guess I’m happy that people noticed it. I didn’t have to call it out.
Do you think anyone else is able to do that style well?
I’m not sure. There’s probably someone that can do it well, but I haven’t heard it yet. That’s probably the part that I don’t want to hear. I like the fact that I hear it being imitated. They won’t say anything clever enough, so that makes it OK.
Why do you think your approach started getting imitated like that?
Probably just needed something new, or it sounded new. I didn’t think it was that wonderful for everyone to want to steal or sound like this or that. I thought there was a lot of flows out there already.
How did your G.O.O.D. Music deal came together?
With Andrew [Barber, the creator of Fake Shore Drive and a well known figure in Chicago hip-hop] being my manager, we had got a couple of calls from John Monopoly and I think Young Chop may have had a part in playing my music a year, a year and a half prior. It seemed like when we got there and talked to them at G.O.O.D. Music that they already knew about the music and who I was. I guess it just kept coming up.
What’s it been like being on that team this summer? You move quietly, but Kanye’s obviously been attracting a lot of attention to himself this year.
Well, I do like being on that team I suppose, because everyone’s in their own lane. Everyone is well-established on that team — like Big Sean and John Legend, and people like that, I like those people and respect them. They’ve got longevity. As opposed to being on a team with a lot of brand-new people and everyone is fighting to stay relevant maybe, and they’re quicker to steal from you. You’re in the studio and you turn your back and they could be taking ideas that aren’t even released yet.
Your beat selection is really interesting — what attracts you to specific beats?
I’m just looking for something that sounds different than everything I rapped on.
Do you just know it when you hear it?
It can be anything. It can be silly, or it can sound unfinished, it’s just gotta make me come up with stuff to say. Sometimes you’re not in the mood to rap, or you don’t know what to say, but it’s always the beat that makes you really confident and know exactly what to say. Really, it’s just waiting on the right beat to come up to find something to say. I can’t record just to be recording, or make a song just because I haven’t made one in a week.