By Jimmy Ness
Despite blessing himself with one of the most un-googleable names imaginable, the sample-warping Chicago producer/rapper Tree is intriguing. He sounds like an injured donkey but also boasts a deep singing voice. His bizarre drawl is singular but bears a resemblance to Danny Brown, Z-Ro, and Pastor Troy. He flips soul records like a traditionalist, but he sounds little like a traditionalist. He’s not the most eloquent rapper, but he’s relatable, charismatic and a great producer. His new mixtape is a lot better than the alternate Sunday school where you inevitably fell asleep or were invited to nerdy prayer parties.
The album initially takes a while to process because it’s hard to take Tree’s break-neck voice in large doses. But “Die” is an immediate stand out. The chorus “Lord, don‘t let me die, man’ hits anyone who has clung to religious notions when life is going downhill. This struggle with religion defines much of the album’, particularly on “All” and “Chuch” where Tree questions whether he is a good person despite being a piff-puffin’, lady lovin’ sinner. Later in the mixtape, his lyrics invoke personal moments including loneliness, fighting with his brother, and being poor. It’s compelling, but unfortunately, there’s not a lot of it. Luckily, his charm carries the rote gangsterisms that it often falls back on.
Tree isn’t a perfect rapper. His vocab is simple and some of his rhymes are little more than struggle rap without the narrative. He also follows in the hefty footsteps of Rick Ross circa “Hustlin,” by rhyming the same word with itself about five times. But like ODB before him, there’s something unique about Tree that makes the clumsiness enjoyable. ‘Talkin’ Naples, Naples, Italy and Caicos, my homies riding horses,’ is my favorite line from the album and a ridiculous attempt at bravado. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but imagine a 90′s Snoop Dogg riding a galloping white stallion while eating a croissant.
Tree doesn’t have to rap fast or super-technical to be interesting. He’s simply a fun listen and judging by his thoughtful demeanor during interviews his unique sound was definitely a planned decision. “Couple of niggaz don’t like my shit, but a couple of these niggaz don’t write my shit,” his raspy voice proclaims on “Doo Doo” before launching into more simple memorable rhymes. The line works as a mission statement: you might not like Tree’s style, but it’s original and difficult to emulate.
Sunday School is self-produced and Tree’s beat-making game is sharp. He chops vocals in a different way than most soul samplers: often just looping one or two hypnotic words which relate to the song’s theme. Instead of drowning us with overplayed Amy Winehouse or Aretha Franklin samples, he uses just a smidgen of their voice to much greater effect than every boring snap-backer jumping on an Adele chorus. Tree also knows how to compliment his voice with odd tempos and sudden beat changes which make you listen more closely. GLC’s feature on “Texas Tea” is a memorable example simply because of how the music changes with his performance.
Tree might be struggling to explain away his sins, but I’m pleased he found stolen equipment to practice his divinity skills on. If you need further convincing on MC perennial woody plant, listen for the nice production and appreciate the rest later. Don’t be fooled by first impressions, King Louie and Chief Keef aren’t the only Chicago rappers worth checking for.