che: Crueger EP

In a studio vlog from 2022, rapper-producer SEBii is gobsmacked as he talks to the comparatively reserved 16-year-old che. He reflects giddily on the “new genre” they’ve created with “euphoria,” one of che’s first songs to break through the SoundCloud rap underground. (Spongebob narrator voice: It wasn’t a new genre.) The track is still incredible: tactile and minimal, built on shards of digital glass. It offered a respite from the blaring rage beats that everybody was hopping on after Playboi Carti dropped Whole Lotta Red and LA-via-Portland rapper Yeat forged a real path to stardom in this lane.

A year later, che has all but abandoned that stripped-back brand of hyper-rap, exploring a maximalist and orchestral sound with producer Natecxo. The songs on his Halloween EP Crueger continue the creative partnership established on last summer’s dizzying album closed captions. These are frothy geysers of hi-hats and synth work, and che’s voice is the glowing orb that guides you through the haze. You’ll catch a decent line here and there, but his approach is less about bars, more about texture—hitting a turn of phrase like that. When he weaves his vocals through the laser beams of “Badu,” he sometimes disappears in the storm, but his punched-in melodies are so fluid and hypnotic that it doesn’t really matter. In the studio, che will hunch over a laptop with the mic next to him and engineer himself meticulously to achieve this level of detail, one hand on the mouse as he raps, a smattering of presets smeared on his vocals.

Peep the original artwork for Crueger, a clear homage to Chief Keef’s Dedication, and it might start to make sense: che is just another teenage Sosa disciple, pushing the Chicago rapper’s atmospheric and electronic hits into wall-of-sound territory. Unlike the glut of producers emailing Keef-type “glo” beats to Summrs and Sexyy Red, Natecxo and che go for something riskier behind the boards, often just by cranking everything up. See the bombastic “Sayso,” which throws a marching band stomp into a maelstrom of melodies; the blooming organ and bass is turned up to speaker-detonating levels, like one of those DMV rap beats from hell. On the following track, “Busan,” che’s vocals—submerged under big, blocky bass—struggle to come up for water, but the payoff is the swathe of chaotic, button-mashed filters at the end. It’s head-spinning music, for better or worse.

che has a shrill, lean voice that helps him land his more ambitious melodic moments (the soaring “Right Now”). He’s got the formal technique down to a science, but you only wish that some of Keef’s raw charisma rubbed off on him, too. At his most creatively deficient, he tends to lapse into straight Sosa karaoke with none of the swag. See, for example, “Gah Damn,” which is powered by a dazzling hi-hat barrage reminiscent of the 4NEM cut “See Through.” That song was great because Keef was funny and menacing; the chaos of “Gah Damn” doesn’t feel earned, just like cheap imitation. “Call Me” is a Thot Breaker-type dancehall song, but that only worked for Keef because he did an unhinged “No Scrubs” interpolation. che’s song, by comparison, is stiff and aimless, crunching up any of its island breeziness like dead leaves.

Even when the biting is blatant, there’s something beautiful about Keef being a bottomless well of inspiration for so many rappers of this generation, with still more flows and concepts to discover. When che and Natecxo successfully experiment with those ideas, they arrive at a cavernous, claustrophobic sound that, like the young artist’s breakout hits, feels a few degrees weirder and more adventurous than the new vanguard of online rap.