TREE We Grown Now.

[Soul Trap Music; 2019]

Styles: deep throat, soul, Chicago blues
Others: The “smoking gun” tape, Kanye West’s ghostwriters’ reference tracks, Howlin Wolf

In a 2016 interview, TREE speaks (somewhat elusively) about a break-in that cost him “all my studio equipment… all my masters… a lot of unreleased Chance [the Rapper] tracks… [and] a Roc Marciano joint that never came out.” The MC/producer best known for his massively influential SoulTrap sound speculated that the $20,000 studio mic he’d received as a gift probably resides in a pawn shop somewhere with a $500 price tag. Financial blows aside, heads were left to imagine a hard drive containing lost artifacts of the Chicago hip-hop renaissance collecting dust on a shelf, its present holders presumably unaware of its significance as a testament to the previous owner’s role in a uniquely fertile period for the Windy City’s increasingly clicked-up rap scene(s).

But what if it didn’t really go down like that? What if the event TREE described wasn’t a random act at all?

The years 2015-2017 saw the release of Chance the Rapper’s critical breakthrough Coloring Book and Kanye West’s ever-divisive seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, as well as countless works from Chief Keef, G Herbo, Lil[s] Durk, Reese, Bibbi, and their fellow drill masters, not to mention less streamed but equally noteworthy missives from the likes of Jeremiah Jae, Serengeti, Sicko Mobb, and other outliers. Plus, Chance wasn’t the only TREE collaborator making noise at this time; Chris Crack and Vic Spencer, now both essentially household names among hip-hop heads, were starting to attract a wider audience. Add footwork and Condé Nast’s purchase of Pitchfork, and it’s clear to see how Chicago’s “urban music” trade was booming as ever.

Where was TREE in all of this? (“Kickin It With My Kids, Seeing The World, Dealing With Love,” his website says.) While the man was putting his life together, his music was essentially everywhere, even if only in spirit. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to hear TREE’s influence on either of the aforementioned albums or in the bluesy vocal stylings of Jae and Geti. And although drill might be worlds removed from SoulTrap, those paying close attention to both might find precedent for the former in TREE’s tales of Gangster Disciple run-ins and Cabrini-Green demolition. We critics and listeners assumed SoulTrap was a brand, but really it had the makings of an entire cottage industry. Could then its product roll-outs be ground to a halt by a simple burglary? Is it more likely its trade secrets were lost to the streets or knowingly acquired by their shadowy patrons?

This is all based on conjuecture, of course, but then again…

Have you ever listened to Sunday School, huh?
Did you know it wasn’t mixed down?
Did you listen to
Sunday School II?
I don’t talk to none them n*****s now
Did you know I spit it off the top?
Even now it isn’t written down
Did you know I started SoulTrap?
Oh and yeah, then I sold that


EXT. WYOMING MOUNTAINS - MORNING

Wide shot of a snow-capped summit, a vernal sunrise reflecting off melting icecaps.

A helicopter swoops into the frame, beginning its descent to an open field, a flat, grassy oasis in this otherwise rugged terrain.

The chopper lands and two figures disembark: one adorned in a neon red tracksuit, baggy but two sizes too short; the other draped in some post-apocalyptic approximation of a grey trenchcoat, belts and lapels flapping every which way as the helicopter blades slow to a halt.

Wearing the tracksuit is DRILLBIT, 16, male, skinny bordering on emaciated. In the trench is NO-FACE, an ambiguous character whose facial features remain perpetually hidden along with any trace of a gender-discerning bodytype. Handcuffed to No-Face’s gloved left hand is a briefcase. In the right, a gun pokes the small of Drillbit’s back, edging him forward.

INT. COMPOUND ANTEROOM - TIME OF DAY UNKNOWN

Drillbit sits alone on a white bench in a white room, bobbing his head to the syncopated soul samples humming from his white earbuds, his right and left pointer fingers spasmodically air-tapping trap kits from phantom pads.

As the music fades, so does the life from his gyrating extremities. His neck slumps over on a final downbeat, and the rest of him tumbles to a cold, motionless, eternal sleep, i.e. death. He dies.

INT. COMPOUND STUDIO - TIME OF DAY UNKNOWN

No-Face stands behind a glass wall in which we can catch the reflection of a HAL-like video camera aimed directly at the character’s face, now concealed by an oddly misshapen, oversized hat.

No-Face gives a video testimonial in auto-tuned monotone.

NO-FACE

I mean he’s clearly a genius.
Even just the way he staggers
the drums with the key change.
Ironically, he says drums were
always his weak point, but I’ve
never heard anything like it
before. An innovator, no doubt.


Sunday School II was the first album I reviewed for Tiny Mix Tapes. When it dropped, I proposed to my editor (Mr P) that we impose a week-long moratorium on rap coverage in recognition of its greatness. My review was about TREE cleaning up SoulTrap for a wider audience, which in hindsight was probably much to do with getting the album properly mixed and mastered. There’s still plenty to be said for his artistic growth since the first Sunday School, but let’s not miss the forest for the TREE.

Imagine a world in which Chance the Rapper and Kanye West could happily bask in super-stardom as neo-gospel auteurs, without having previously explored psychedelics and the occult. I don’t want this whole piece to read as a knock on either artist. I’m a fan of both, and collective recognition of TREE’s vision and foresight should not be predicated on accepting without question his influence over Chicago rap and the hip-hop mainstream post-2012. I’m just saying, though!

There aren’t as many trap drums on We Grown Now. as on TREE’s past work, but the soul of his music glows brighter than ever. He’s into his mid-30s now, and it can be heard in his voice — not that it’s particularly gruffer than normal, but that it’s so much readier to break into unaffected spoken-word confessional. TREE’s style has always been raw and personal, but never quite like this. Here is a rapper/producer completely unconcerned with whatever else is going on in hip-hop right now, pouring out all the drama, crime, and comedy of his past few years’ experiences into 30-some-odd minutes and 13 tracks. Here’s a dad who will jump into his 12-year-old son’s schoolyard fights if needed, a survivor of both Chicago’s streets and corporate America, who proposes his Project Mayhem brethren be paid royalties on his success in crack if needed. Here is — no need to yell it anymore, but still — TREE!

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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