How old is Tree? Do we even know? He certainly looks like a young man, but the Chicago rapper/producer has a voice like a gnarled, twisted, tougher-than-iron tree limb. He sounds like an 80-year-old Korean War vet who somehow taught himself to rap really well. He sounds like life has been chipping away at his soul since before our parents were born. Nobody raps like Tree. His voice sounds less like what we’ve traditionally understood as rapping — choppy, staccato delivery shot through with arrogance and bluster — and more like an extremely rhythmic groan. When I was writing about last year’s Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out mixtape, I compared Tree to David Banner, his closest aesthetic relation in rap. But on that (very good) tape, he was rapping over streaked soul samples and thundering programmed drums, and so the context of the music vaguely matched what Banner was doing back on Mississippi: The Album. But on the new The MCTreeG EP, he’s using a sparse and idiosyncratic musical palette, and all of a sudden he sounds nothing like anyone. The MCTreeG EP is a deeply strange piece of work, and I almost can’t believe it exists. It occupies a lane all its own, and for the most part, that’s a good thing.
Consider the impossible string of events that must’ve gone into this EP existing. Tree, after all, is a largely unknown property; Sunday School II had verses from Danny Brown and Roc Marciano, but their presence wasn’t enough to bring Tree into their internet-favorite ranks. So: A car company decides to effectively sponsor this relative unknown rapper, stamping its logo on the EP’s cover and presumably throwing some money around. Scion has already sponsored a mind-boggling array of black metal shows and garage-rock compilations, but I can’t imagine who they’re trying to sell cars to with this collection of ground-limestone verses and hall-of-mirrors samples and deep-cavern spaces between drum hits. They’ve also released the EP with all the cuss words blurred out, which is a strange way to approach anything rap-related. But even with epithets obscured, the Scion motor company has still decided to associate itself with a rap record that contains this lyric: “Versace was a faggot.”
About that line: It was almost enough to keep me from writing about this EP. On Rap Genius, Tree himself writes that he’s not homophobic; he just wanted to draw attention to the idea that other rappers are wearing Versace clothes, and talking about those clothes, while saying “no homo,” perhaps unaware of the man behind the company. Still, I mean, come on. This is a reach — a way to say some hateful shit and then force it into an intellectual-justification scenario where you’re actually blaming other people for being homophobic. That line isn’t especially indicative of what’s on The MCTreeG EP, but it does stick out like a knifepoint. Mostly, Tree’s lyrics are lived-in slice-of-life third-person things. “Uh Million” is a love song full of minute details: “Lived there for a year but she hate Atlanta,” that sort of thing. “Like Whoa” is addressed to a wild kid who grew up and got a job, and it’s about the wonder of thinking you know someone and then seeing that person become a better person. The brilliant and sung-not-rapped “Probably Nu It,” almost certainly the best song Tree has ever written, has barely any lyrics, but those lyrics amount to a blues koan about fucking someone who already has a significant other and realizing you don’t care. These are smart, finely sketched character pieces, and they do a lot to undo the damage of the bullshit halfassed wisdom of that Versace line and everything that surrounds it.
The real reason The MCTreeG EP is in this space this week, though, is the music, which is adventurous in ways that offset the homespun real-talk lyrics. “Probably Nu It” is all fingersnaps and rubber-band synth-bass and cold empty space; it’s less DJ Mustard and more “Laffy Taffy,” which makes a fascinating bed for that singsong grunt. “God Like” has laconic, expansive jazz pianos and horns over ticcy, minimal hi-hat programming. “Stay Away” is practically a minimalist take on the skronk-rap production of early-’00s Def Jux. The whole tape sounds somehow nervous and assured at the same damn time. It’s a blue-collar rap tape with an experimental spirit, and I will live the rest of my life without figuring out how a car company decided to use it as a promotional tool.
Download The MCTreeG EP here.