The Chicago rapper/producer Tree calls his style “soul-trap,” and that’s a better genre descriptor than a critic nerd like me could come up with. Seen from a certain angle, Tree is an inheritor to his city’s Common/early Kanye conscious-rap throne. His music can be placid and thoughtful, full of doomed narrative and poverty-contemplation and emotional catharsis. He does things with samples that could’ve made No I.D. or young Kanye proud; check the way he resurrects the old chipmunk-soul production trick to turn Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” into a disorienting banger on “The King.” And he’s structured his entire new mixtape Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out around the idea of a morning at church; it actually has firmly demarcated mini-suites, and it works toward a structural coherence that even the most ambitious mixtapes almost never try. But Tree isn’t a preacher or a striver or a struggle-rapper, and he damn sure isn’t an antidote to his city’s nihilistic drill scene. Rather, he comes off like a wizened older cousin to the kids in that scene. His drums punch almost as hard as Young Chop’s, his threats are just as vivid and bloodyminded as Chief Keef’s, and his voice is a demonic terror all its own.
We should talk about that voice. It’s a wizened, swollen growl, the voice of a man who gargles gravel and spikes his coffee with magma. I’ve seen at least one writer compare it to Tom Waits, but its closest analog is probably David Banner, another rapper who, at his early best, walked a narrow line between tough and soulful. Tree’s adlibs are rarely words; they’re sounds, yawps and wails and wordless snarls. But when he’s actually rapping, that voice somehow falls right into the pocket, conveying shocking amounts of sad empathy or fired-up excitement when it needs to. When Danny Brown shows up on “NO Faces,” Tree, trying his best to play it low-key, sounds just as unhinged. And when the great hazy New York traditionalist Roc Marciano guests on “TRYNAWIN,” Tree makes a fascinating counterpoint, showing how Marciano’s boom-bap tough-talk might sound if it was thrashing around desperately to stay above water. On last year’s horribly-mastered Sunday School mixtape, Tree’s voice was all I could hear; it leaped from his tracks with assaultive force. But on Sunday School II, his voice finds its way back into the beats, and suddenly its subtleties and modulations take on a new power.
That’s a very good thing, since it gives us more of a chance to hear Tree’s tracks, which are things of damaged beauty. Tree only produced about half of Sunday School by himself, but his own tracks tend to be the standouts. “FAME” is a two-minute wonder, a twinkling old jazz horn-loop refracted through a prism of disruption. “Most Successful” has the itchy hi-hats of old-school Southern rap, but it affixes them to a head-blown loop of a murmuring sample, like some lost Boards Of Canada/Three 6 Mafia collaboration. “Hurt” is the sort of deranged circus-music lope that Organized Noize used to give OutKast. And even when Tree’s not producing, he’s linking up (and often co-producing) with likeminded producers like Frank Dukes and Bink!, guys who can keep the dense-but-intense vibe rolling. Like Tree’s voice itself, the production on the tape ably walks a line between weirdness and ferocity, and it works because Tree’s able to translate this sound into actual songs, often crooning his own broken-blues hooks.
Chicago, of course, has a rich soul-music history, and Sunday School II reflects that just as much as Chance The Rapper’s excellent new Acid Rap does. The music is there in the samples themselves — you can picture Tree just raiding his parents’ record collectioin — and in the inventive but intuitive ways that Tree bends those samples to fit with what he’s doing. But this is still urgent, violent music, music being beamed from a major American city that’s turned into a warzone full of hungry kids. Both sides of South Side Chicago in 2013 — the pride and tradition, the violence and pain — are all over Sunday School II. It’s an absolutely vital piece of music and one of the strongest new entries in an increasingly great year for mixtapes.
Download Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out here.