[21 March 2014]
Chicago is a city that likes to talk about itself and, only partially as a consequence, a city that gets a lot of national ink. Unfortunately, national media reports rarely even pretend to capture the nuances, contradictions and idiosyncrasies that inspires such intense pride and devotion to the place in those who live there. Whether it’s Rahm Emmanuel’s “reforms”, the relative impact of gun violence or the city’s rap scene, reporting by outsiders tend to flatten out and distort reality for the purposes of neater, more digestible narratives.
To expand on that last example, when outsiders write about Chicago’s hip-hop scene they routinely ignore a whole raft of interesting currents found therein, from BBU‘s revolutionary juke anthems to Hologram Kizzie’s (aka PsalmOne) workingwoman rhymes to the Cool Kids’ throwback party jams, all the way through ShowYouSuck’s zany shtick. Instead, they usually focus on just two major trends—the darkly manic drill scene made famous by Chief Keef and King Louie, or the more laid back post-Kanye soul-samplers like the meteorically-rising star Chance The Rapper.
As if trying to highlight the false choice presented in the trap/soul dichotomy, Tremaine Johnson (known as Tree) has spent the last two years carving out a space between those two genres with music he describes, fittingly, as “soultrap”. Mixing the the tight, hyperkinetic 808 & synths of the trap scene with chirpy, tightly-looped soul samples, Tree’s music is an intoxicating melange of gritty muscle and aspirational uplift. His first big splash, the 2012 self-produced mixtape Sunday School, was a rough, GarageBand-hewn stew of anger, reflection and deep personal conflict. Last year he followed it up with Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out, which featured cleaner production, a broader lyrical scope and guest verses from the likes of Danny Brown and Chance The Rapper.
So it was no surprise that, after over a decade in the local scene and two well-received releases, the no-longer-young (he turned 30 in October) MC would start setting his sights on bigger audiences with his next release. In one of those strange occurrences, he has hooked up with Scion AV (a website/label that allows the automaker to remind Millennials that Toyota still knows what’s poppin’ in the streets) for the free @MCTreeG EP.
After pulling double duty as both a rising rap star and Nordstrom salesman, Tree is someone who knows a little something about code-switching and making himself appealing in multiple contexts. Nowhere has he shown that ability more than on the EP’s first two tracks, which are some of the strongest of his career. Opener “Probably Nu It” rides in on a lush, laid back beat for one verse before skittering hi hats finally kick in the second time around, providing a satisfying build and release. The rap itself is a fairly lightweight story of a cheating girlfriend who knows better but can’t help herself; nothing groundbreaking, but perfectly suited to a song designed to be blasted on sunny days cruising with the windows down. It’s followed by “Like Woah”, a rags-to-riches triumph anthem that practically oozes crossover appeal.
Not only is “Like Woah” the strongest song here, it sets the stage for the rest of the EP, which isn’t quite as strong as the opening songs but finds Tree consolidating his strengths with new, cleaner production and thoughtful reflection on his newfound position as a scene elder. Last year, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Berelli, Tree talked about why he spent a decade rapping before feeling mature enough to release anything, saying that “only in the last two years have I found the confidence… also, back then there was no representative of Chicago rap.” That confidence at being one of the city’s voices is never clearer than on this record. In “Soultrappin’” he muses about the state of current hip-hop and some of it’s sadly self-destructive undercurrents. At the same time, he avoids self-righteous preaching and ruminates on the fact that, like his father, Malcolm X was an addict and yet still did great things with his life. This gets to the heart of the idea of “soul trap”—it’s a mixture of the better angels of soul music and a recognition of the harsh realities facing black people in America and the addictive, sometimes self-destructive responses that necessarily follow.
Of course, another part of that equation involves the search for love, something Tree struggles to find even as he notices that his success certainly has helped him in the search for women. It’s a distinction that he wrestles with in songs like “God Like”, where he’s torn between his relationship and a side girl. “Uh Million” focuses on his dissatisfaction with the easy sex his fame has brought and also features a killer guest spot from Taylor Outlaw, who reminds us that a woman’s search for respect and stability makes the game no more fun for them. But it’s “Stay Away” that shows Tree at his most self-reflective: he’s missing his ex, missing his old friends, proud of his ability to rise above his hardscrabble past but at the same time all too aware that he will never turn his back on his roots. “Stay away from me” he advises, suggesting that anyone signing up to be with Tree is getting more than they bargained for. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more and it’s part of what makes his music so exciting.