Dressed in Givenchy Paris slide sandals and socks, reclining in a plush chair in the lounge of Chicago's Soho House, Valee' was the definition of comfortable. So, understandably, he was talking about remote control cars. "I just put $2500 into this RC car, and I'm going to drive it around," he told me on a recent Friday, describing the weekend ahead. "It's the fastest thing; I could race anyone." His dreads kept falling across his face, obscuring his constant Cheshire Cat grin and the two small, flower-shaped tattoos behind his right eye. He'd recently upgraded his RC car inventory after his last car, into which he'd sunk a mere $750, was stolen. I realized that this was definitely the same dude who rapped on his recent single "VTL," "Paid two hundred for some socks / And I don't know where they the hell at."
Valee' doesn't sound like anything happening in Chicago hip-hop right now. Take "Shell," his breakout single that's quietly amassed hundreds of thousands of streams and caught the ear of tastemaking artists like Lil Yachty, D.R.A.M., and G Herbo. Over a deceptively simple, self-produced trap beat, Valee' raps, "Walked out Gucci, then crossed the street (fuck it) / Upset stomach I had to eat (ooh)." His unorthodox, inventive delivery is almost a coo, punctuating each "ooh" like he actually has a belly ache. On paper, that might sound unreasonably goofy. But the carefree execution and infectious hook prove that Valee' is weird, funny, and supremely capable of writing insanely catchy songs. In less than 18 months, beginning with his first mixtape 12:12, Valee' has put out four projects and a string of irrepressible, off-kilter singles that have cemented him as one of the city's hottest talents.
"I never did open mics," he told me, while nursing a Don Julio Blanco neat. "You know how some people get a car and they want rims, they start off with 20-inch rims, then they buy 22-inch rims? With my music, I came right out with $10,000 26-inch offset rims—the most expensive you can get." He's as playful in person as his songs suggest, frequently using these kinds of entertaining metaphors to discuss his life and career. Yet despite his outgoing character and the attention he's begun to receive, the 28-year-old artist has kept a low profile. He barely tweets, and so far he has let his music's vivid one-liners and melodies speak for themselves. Our meeting was his first-ever interview.
"It's crazy all this just happened between last May and now," he said. "I just believe in a slow, organic grind because I never did want fame. I work so hard on music that when it does well and explodes, I forget the attention that comes with it. I'm slowly also learning how to become a public figure in the right way." On the strength of his new DJ Bandz-hosted project, 1988, premiering below, the spotlight is sure to get even more intense for the once-mysterious artist.
Born Valee' (pronounced Vuh-lay) Taylor, he was raised around Chicago's South Side on a steady diet of Project Pat, Three Six Mafia, and Kanye West. He started making music on a whim after moving to the Near South Side neighborhood in his 20s. "I'm in the house, bored, one day about four years ago, and I'm like, 'I think I'm going to go and get a game system.' But on the way to get to the game system, I make a detour and go to Guitar Center," he remembered excitedly. There, he bought all the recording equipment for making beats and a couple of mics so he could rap. It clicked: "I began just staying in the house, tucked away with my head down making music while going to nightclubs, the out south strip clubs and spent my time getting to know the security, DJs. That became like a full-time job, and it paid off."
His first release was a song called "Benji & Nina," a collaboration with Harvey, Illinois, rapper Ty Money, on DJ Bandz's 2014 mixtape Chilanta. "I still wasn't comfortable with my music then—especially not enough to put my own music out," Valee' admitted. But he gained confidence after providing Ty Money the hook for "Cash Don't Bend," a highlight on Ty's 2015 Chicago rap masterclass Cinco De Money, and later co-writing "Party At My Traphouse," the best song on Englewood rapper Bowl King's No Glorification tape. The latter's opening stanzas showcased how Valee's dexterous flow could become hypnotizing. On 12:12, which dropped in December 2015, he followed through on the promise of his features with tracks like "Want," a lush, woozy trap deconstruction.
Two mini-mixtapes, 1:11 and 2:22, followed, each improving on Valee's freewheeling vocal style, with snapping trap beats from ChaseTheMoney, Rio Mac, and Valee' himself. The second of those projects featured "Shell," which has slowly become a consensus favorite despite coming together basically on a whim. "I made 'Shell' at my house in front of my fridge, and the crazy thing is I made that beat in about 12 minutes," Valee' explained. "Every time I hear it I go back to that day." A couple months later, he dropped "I Got Whatever," which took his lyrical dexterity to another level. He tears through lines like "I got, I got whatever I'm playing with my bitch bad, she can't get no better / My engine it running and revving forever, whenever I'm using the clutch and the pedal" at a blistering pace.
That song is also on his most recent tape 12:12 Again, the purest distillation of why Valee' is so exciting. "Yo Gotti" kicks off with the striking observation of, "I went to Cabela's and bought my mommy a shotty," while the final lines on "VTL" offer the memorable gut punch of "Did some pretty fucked up stuff / I don't know why I ain't in hell yet / I bought my bitch a Yorkie pup / and she ain't even clip her nails yet." The loopy, otherworldly "Molly Fun Ride," meanwhile, finds him at his most adventurous. None of the 16 songs run past the three minute mark, an intentional stylistic choice. Valee' noticed, while hanging out with his friends, that they'd start conversations around the second verse of any song they were listening to. It made sense to record music with that behavior in mind: "I realized as long as I get the hook out and the first verse I can pretty much put there and bounce out that whole idea, mix and master it and be done with it," he said.
His new tape 1988 heads in a slightly different direction. On it, Valee' embraces "more than just my birth year," he explained. "Lately I've been on this streak of making this trap music in 2017 but I've also been reintroducing this 1988 sound, channeling Eazy E and KRS-One. For example I made 'Flow (I'm The Typa..),' and going forward I just have to keep digging for ways that rappers aren't going now." There's also a moody song that reimagines Erykah Badu's 2010 track "Window Seat," finding Valee' at his most plaintive. "I really hope she hears it and gives me a hug," he quipped. While Valee' tackles most of the production, his longtime collaborator St. Louis producer ChaseTheMoney also features (the two have another yet-to-be-titled project out May 21).
"I just learned that you don't become great at something until you really obsess over it," Valee' said, unprompted, getting to the end of his snifter of tequila. He realizes this year is going to change even more things for him. "I look at it as flights of stairs. I started at the first floor and now I feel I'm on the 68th floor of a 220 floor building. I hope at the end of the year I can be on, like, the 150th floor." He laughed. "I'm not in a rush. iLoveMakonnen made "Tuesday" two years before it popped. I'm a year later with 'Shell.'"
Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.
Josh Terry walked out Gucci then wrote this article. You can follow him on Twitter.