Chicago rapper Tree has a distinct birth mark on his chin and an even more distinct rapping voice: an exasperated honk that’s raspier than a cigar with a cough. But his defining quality – and what he’s been perfecting since he started putting out music – is his production. Self-titled as Soul Trap, his beats are neither a gimmick capitalizing on the success of “trap music” nor a novelty mash-up, like fellow Chicagoans The Hood Internet. What it actually sounds like is a consistently inspired and industrious texture woven with dusty vinyl loops, quivering hi-hats and window-rattling 808s.
Now, his beats aren’t that far removed from some of Ka and Roc Marciano’s recent stuff, Kanye’s decade-old chipmunk soul, or even Mannie Fresh’s classical strings on “Back That Azz Up,” but Tree’s found ways to distinguish his sound. There’s a level of taste in the finished product that doesn’t betray Tree’s 30 years. The ear for samples is far more than finding some specific sound or picking out cool unknown shit. It’s about plucking the perfect vocal chop, slowing it down or speeding it up, stretching out the best part like taffy, and tossing some light work drums over it.
Following a number of early collaborative projects and his two critically acclaimed Sunday School mixtapes, Tree recently dropped the @MCTREEG EP, not to be confused with the Tree EP from 2011. Here he has taken the confidence stemming from the relative success of those ‘tapes to refine his sound somewhat. What were fairly recognizable Etta James or Curtis Mayfield vocals are now pitched-up Lana Del Rey samples or original compositions with a hollowed-out bass and metronome. Tree never loses his style though, and him flexing with his own beats and few features make this EP a really compelling little project.
The curse word edits are frequently distracting and meaningless when more people listen to music on YouTube than the radio, but when intelligible, it’s clear that Tree has developed his writing. He could always flow and his gravelly wheeze is constantly captivating, but he’s gotten really good at painting cinematic scenes with his words like Biggie or Ghostface. On “Grace,” he raps, “Women would tell me I was handsome/I woulnd’t believe ‘em while dirty dancing at the cirb,” which sounds like a Romantic Comedy montage. When he intricately depicts a woman in the first verse of “Probably Nu It” or chronicles a journey of higher education in the second verse of “Like Woah,” there are very personal and evocative details. On the standout “Soultrappin/I Believe,” he compares the destructive heroin use of two of his biggest heroes: Malcolm X and his father. “And I feel it in my soul/Michael Jackson”
Tree is supposedly working with G-Unit’s Sha Money and some pretty big names in the near future. He raps, “And I really wanna change but you know the fame, you know the fame man,” on the closer “God Like.” There seems to be little Tree needs to change to handle fame, and even less to change with his ear for rap songs.