January 28, 2014

Max Bell is made of limestone.

Ascendant Chicago rapper/producer Tree’s claim that he “invented soul trap” isn’t entirely accurate. Soul trap was around before Pimp C had a pocket full of stones. There just wasn’t a name for it. Goodie Mob and Witchdoctor’s first albums are so full of soul and blues, both lyrically and sonically, that if I ran a record store I’d consistently place them in both sections just to irk my clientele. Scarface’s catalogue (see “I Seen a Man Die ” or “On My Block”), Devin the Dude’s “Doobie Ashtray” (THE Dude song), and countless other Texas/Southern rap records also come to mind.

But in all fairness to Tree, he’s coined the term and updated the form. The throne of modern soul trap belongs to him.

His soul trap manifesto comes in the form of THE @MCTREEG EP, a markedly solid seven-track EP released in conjunction with Scion AV. Unfortunately, it’s edited. Depending on the track, the frequent cut outs/vocal distortions can make for a frustrating listen. I know Scion AV is beholden to its Macklemore-clean parent company, but censoring the rapper you’ve contracted to (more or less) help market your cars to rap listeners seems antithetical. That said, once you listen to the EP a second time – you should – it becomes less problematic.

Tree’s always adopted the late Guru’s “it’s mostly the voice” maxim, and here his voice reaches its grittiest depths yet. He sings most hooks and sings well. When Tree rhymes he’s so deep in the pocket nary an aural jewel is missed. He toys with rhythm, pitch, and inflection with a level of dexterity other rappers should find daunting.

On opener “Probably Nu It” Tree continues to prove his mettle as a producer, turning electronic minimalism into a sub-rattling banger that borders on thuggish-ruggish lullaby. Blips, claps, and skittering hi-hats are backed by hard, hollowed out bass. It’s one of the catchiest, nonchalant hook-up songs you won’t hear on the radio.

With the hook that Tree pares his lyrics down to the most essential: “She was creepin’ on the low / Had another that I know about / It don’t matter no how (3x) / Teach me what you know about / She came over showed out.” These lines have a near-truncated feeling. Listening to them is akin to reading flash fiction or viewing modern paintings. The whole scene is painted in brief and outwardly brash strokes. It might seem like writing the words took no time at all, but crafting a hook this tight and making it feel so loose is an art.

“Like Whoa” is both melancholic meditation and celebration. No shots fired are fired at Black Rob. Instead, it’s a far more poignant rags-to-riches tale than Tony Montana’s money-power-women dictum. Here Tree rolls the rise and prosperity of two archetypes in to one. In his world, working student/parent is elevated to bottle-popping rapper. And he proves to be the man to turn to if you need to diversify your bonds:

“100 grand on your wrist

Put that 100 grand in your home

Something you own, leave to your kids — now thats fresh”

It’s the rollicking delivery of lines like this, stuck in the middle of a dense verse, that might go unheard on first listen. They’re also among the most important. Timepieces become financial practicality and longevity — rarely is the traditional notion of swag so swiftly subverted. And amidst the wails and Bobby “Blue” Bland-esque snarls Tree throws in some comedy, joking that yoga isn’t really working out.

Censorship notwithstanding, the tracks with guest appearances, “Grace” and “Uh Million,” are the EP’s sole shortcomings. The samples on the former become a little grating after a few listens; and aside from Lennon of Project Mayhem’s dull delivery, the rhymes are anything but inventive. The beat on “Uh Million,” with its sliding strings is the better of the two, but featured rapper (singer?) Taylor Outlaw drags Tree down. He can hold himself up without any features and should only surround himself with rappers on par with Danny Brown and Roc Marci, as he did on Sunday School II .

While the other songs have their merits, “Soultrappin/Believe” is the axle on which the wheels of soul trap slab rotate. It’s the ethos of the EP distilled and poured straight with no chaser. With sped-up, chipmunk soul samples layered over a deceptively simple beat, it’s everything from Tree’s previous work filtered through modernistic trap lens.

Tempering his father and Malcom X’s addictions with Versace’s sexual preference — somehow it works — Tree moves between gravelly rap and raspy howl, his voice like the bottom of bottle turned blunt ashtray. He’s at his most raw, his most unhinged, and his most poignantly haunting. The hook is brilliant in its seeming safety. An ostensibly harmless chorus of braggadocio about having fans, it’s actually laden with references to Chicago’s Vicelords. This is part of Tree’s carefully constructed conceit: his music can be enjoyed by all but only fully understood by the initiated.

Tree’s one of the most important rappers/producers from Chi-city. He’s blending and bending genres while delivering unfiltered yet sharply written blues raps over forward-thinking production. If the lyrics and piano-driven, jazzy slap of “God Like” are any indication of where Tree plans to take his music, I’ll be singing ‘soul trap on everything’ until Howlin’ Wolf rises from the Illinois soil.

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