Album Review: Tree – Sunday School

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 1st Q 2012
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Sometimes when an artist does something dramatically original it polarizes the listening populace, some shy away from it, because it shocks their senses and their understanding of the confines of their genre, others flock to it merely because it is different without taking the time to investigate whether there is any depth behind the exploration.  When an artist’s originality is subtler – perhaps an unusual combination of existing and previous aesthetics – a lot of times people miss the boat entirely, writing it off as derivative, uninteresting, or uninspiring.  The reason for my delay in reviewing Sunday School is that I simply missed the boat the first few times I gave Tree a listen.  For those that follow the rap world closely, Tree’s buzz has been unavoidable this year.  Often falsely set up as an underground more artistic and cultured foil to Chief Keef and the explosion of the drill scene in Chicago this year, Tree is far from some hyper-conscious coffee shop friendly rap artist.  I came upon Sunday School back in March when I started this site up and began to look around for the best releases of the first quarter to begin putting together some reviews for the site.  Against the unusually stellar first quarter canvass of Ka’s devout lyrical calisthenics and complex patterns, ScHoolboy Q’s rubbery vocal inflected Oxycontin misadventures, Lil Ugly Mane’s otherworldly dedication to a dark Memphis revivalism, Blue Sky Black Death’s stylized soundscapes the psychedelic self-absorbed deity Nacho Picasso, or Big K.R.I.T.’s mainstream ready country rap gospel spitting stripper solicitations – Tree’s album somehow seemed less alluring and noteworthy to me.  Recently I heard The Lit EP and enjoyed it enough that it caught my attention again.  As time has gone on, the year has slowed down, and in the midst of a particularly slow third quarter I went back to give Sunday School another shot.  S/O to my man Alex over at steadybloggin.com for insisting to me that I was missing out on something special.  

Tree “All”

Although he’s been around for a minute on the Chicago scene, Tree has become known this year as the creator of soul trap music, a style he invented by slicing and chopping up samples – often, though not always, familiar soul and R&B samples from the 70’s – into the rhythms of trap beat patterns.  The production style he’s created is a welcome innovation given one the relative lack of sample based music in the trap beat dominated circles and the lack of quality drum work – not to mention soul samples – in the sample friendly cloud rap circles.  While longevity will undoubtedly prove to be an important factor it’s quite arguable that Tree may have fostered the most important movement in sample based production since Kanye and Just Blaze unleashed The Blueprint.  While the cloud/aquatic rap innovators may have their own case to make along those lines, there’s no doubt that nobody has brought new life to soul samples in the same way over the last decade.

Tree suggests there are no direct influences or inspirations for his production style, other than his own desire to make music that he wanted to rap over, but if I had to parse together sonic ancestors I’d acknowledge that it feels like there are elements of Diplomatic Immunity era Heatmakerz in the work – although with considerably less passion for chipmunking vocals – as well influence from great sample choppers of the past, including Dilla, Premier, Just Blaze, and Chicago’s own Kanye and The Molemen.  However, none of those really fit the guidelines of primary source material as none of them had drum work that even remotely resembled what Tree utilizes, which he suggests is trap beat influenced, despite the fact that his patterns are often more complex, diverse, and full than the typical upbeat, frequent hi-hat, solid kick, heavy clap patterns of his trap contemporaries.  Beyond that, Tree’s sample evisceration and reconstruction generally – though not always – seems to go a step beyond the chopping and rearrangement of his predecessors.  Like many of the greats, if he doesn’t want you to be able to easily identify his source material, it will be very difficult for you to put it together.  There are other times when the sample choice is obvious to most, but even then the flip is always distinct from anything that’s previously been done with the record.  Clearly not content with reinventing the wheel or adding minor innovations to pre-existing formulas, Tree has designed his style of production from the ground up and the originality of his product is important to him.


Tree “Best”

Distinct voices often help an artist stand out in the crowded rap landscape and Tree’s is definitely distinctive – roughened by bits of gravel and rasp, with hints of an raised in Cabrini version of David Banner alter ego.  More importantly than the quality of his voice – which clearly divulges the mileage of gritty experience, sorrow, a penchant for conversation beyond the normal comfort zone of human vocal chords, and more than a couple smoking sessions – is the way in which he uses it.  Despite the gruffness of his vocal inflections, Tree is fully confident in his abilities on the mic and perfectly comfortable singing his hooks – something of a strong suit and something he offers up to other artists for a price – and accentuating his bars with impassioned ad-libs, and a flow that augments his unique production style quite well.  While most rap listeners don’t really pay too much conscious attention to it, most rappers use their vocal tones and cadences as an additional instrumental component to the mix of the song, Tree really takes that concept to heart.  His delivery is perfectly rhythmically tied to his complex drum patterns and unlike so many artists today his sentences carry on to their logical conclusion – rather than dropping a lot of fragments and total non sequiturs – even if when means carrying the thought on for an extra bar and then echoing, or repeating, a beat or two to maintain the crisp alignment of the verse to the beat and keep the idea complete and in tact.  What makes the impact of his music so substantial is the quality and originality of the product.  In another era it’s hard to believe that Tree wouldn’t have been a soul singer, his pipes might be a bit too rusty sounding for such a venture, but most of his production is so dense and powerful that very few voices would have the strength to cut through it and augment it with the passion that Tree brings to the mix vocally.


Tree “Call Me”

Lyrically, Tree’s subject matter isn’t earth-shattering in any sort of innovative sense, but there’s nuance to his point of view that provides a little more depth to his verses, without really looking to break the mold. While Sunday School discusses drug dealing, violence, stunting, and other frequent topics covered in the mainstream, the album expresses a sense of community and nostalgia for the people and experiences that made him the person he is today.  It’s an interesting theme for an album by an artist so clearly motivated by getting signed, achieving financial success, and earning the finer things to cook up such a soulful ode to his guttural surroundings.

A track by track analysis of Sunday School would be a valuable endeavor in its own right, however the power of the project comes more from the weight of the music heard in long form.  It’s an inspiring endeavor all around, recalling feelings of Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Jay’s Blueprint, David Banner’s Mississippi, but it somehow manages to be entirely Tree and Chicago.  When the dust settles and people look back at this year, with all of the attention Chief Keef and the drill scene have received, and the developments that Mikkey Halsted has gone through, it is likely that an album that sounds nothing like any of that – Tree’s Sunday School – will be the album that stands out above everything else.

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