Everybody's an A&R—or something like it—and every day there's another artist you Need to Know or a future star who's under-appreciated, underrated, or under-recognized. ("I Am the New Person You Have to Know About Now," as ClickHole put it.) But 99 percent of rappers celebrated for their great potential will not reach it: They got lucky, or they have money, or they're plugged, or simply were the lucky recipient of an overeager blogger's publish finger—but they don't have the talent, personality, or willpower to make it any further. The cycle, for most artists, lasts a year or two; then they slink back to obscurity, or remain in industry stasis. It doesn't matter if you make conscious rap, backpack shit, street rap, or kicked it at Young Thug's holiday party. All those blogs and publications are already on to the next batch of recruits.
It's an exploitative system to be sure, even when the artists in question don't have all that much dimension. But those who do, unless they are interested in the business of churning out hit records, can as easily find themselves stuck on the outside. After gaining the attention of Andrew Barber of Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, Tree earned the enthusiasm of critics (including my own) in 2012, a beneficiary of the renaissance in Chicago hip-hop more broadly. But Tree seemed to arrive fully formed, having evolved in isolation from the glare of popular music's spotlight and the city's homegrown sounds. There's no evidence littering the Internet of time spent "developing." All the hard work was done behind the scenes. A rapper-producer with idiosyncratic beats, an ear for hooks, clever lyrics, and a bottomless wellspring of stories, Tree is the full package.
But though he's carved out a nice little niche since, Tree remains a marginal concern to most of the United States. He was older than your average rising star, approaching 30; he lacked the raw commercial viability of the drill artists, but was a little too street for fans of the more erudite sounds of Chance the Rapper. Or maybe Tree was simply too different, too original, for the world to process. His style of production—at once soulful and rugged—has redefined what can be done with samples, flipping loops from YouTube into truly creative, jury-rigged constructs that chug forward like miniature engines. At first it's disconcerting, even off-putting. Tree's universe is so expansive it can be difficult to wrap one's head around. He's taken an idiosyncratic path—after all, his name is "Tree." And his music follows—a sound no one had really heard and no one knew what to do with.
Three years after Chicago's big breakthrough, media attention has waned. And Tree is still making some of the best music in hip-hop, point blank—from Chicago or anywhere else. His story might be old, but his art isn't: He remains one of the city's most prolific auteurs. His shortcomings are pretty much wholly a matter of presentation—that finding the best records is a matter of doing a deep dive into the music—but they seem intractable from his music's play-by-its-own-rules charms. So much of his work is thrown into the ether that each release is easily written off as yet another "Tree record." It doesn't help that he'll toss a local performer one of his strongest beats or hooks, saving more personal material for his albums. Then there are collaborations with other local artists, one-offs for Drank&Dank compilations, and a discography amorphous even to his fans.
Tree started off with Chicago hip-hop crew Project Mayhem, but his first solo album diverged sharply from their sound. 2011's The 3rd Floor, a tape of all-original material, was released to little attention outside of Fake Shore Drive. The song was named for Tree's childhood residence in Cabrini-Green, which had been the city's second-largest housing projects, home of the Candyman, and the only major housing system on the city's North side. Since that time, Cabrini-Green has been demolished; in some ways, Tree's music speaks directly to this lost history.
The 3rd Floor isn't very well recognized, because he was virtually unknown when it arrived, but aside from last year's The MC Tree G EP with Scion, it's his strongest release. It's his most "street" record, but it feels unconsciously so—a product of immersion rather than a conscious stand. Some of the more overt trappings of soul and gospel that would arrive later on records like Sunday School are tamped down; the production is stripped bare, a musical barbed wire, and implies the open space and paint-flecked topography of his Cabrini origins.
He has a writerly style, crafting palpable situations where dramatic events are reported with the same urgency as parties or more banal observations. On "Payback": "He smiled, grinned grim, I ain't even like him at first, my thoughts lurk/As we drove through the alley shots burst." Production implies an abrasive, textured harshness; on "Payback," his narration is accompanied simply by a two-note quivering Rhodes sample; the piano on "My Homies" has a sharp, tactile coldness, like metal clinking on concrete. Drums don't just tap out a pattern; musical elements are more liable to scrape and drag across the track.
A rapper-producer with idiosyncratic beats, an ear for hooks, clever lyrics, and a bottomless wellspring of stories, Tree is the full package.
This generates deep mystique. One suspects twice as much occurs in his music's shadows. It's a universe free from the expected strategies and familiar collaborations. To dive into the deep end is to discover an entire world of new artists; whether by necessity or virtue of hometown loyalty, as a rapper, producer, or hookman for hire, Tree's put his stamp on a range of Chicago artists. One of the most talented is Vic Spencer, whose menacing "Profound" Tree guested on last year; rumor has it the duo have an EP together in the works with Tree behind the boards. Tree's also released several tapes with Tone Skeeta; the video for "Pride" was shot while a house fire burned up the street, and includes one of Tree's classic "My hoes is gorgeous/My house a fortress!" opening lines.
One of his most under-recognized talents is making killer hooks; Paypa's "Grey Goose" finds his distinctive sing-song working on a Midwest Max B tip. There's his EP WizardTree with Fatboi Fresh, and The Johnson & Johnson EP with Nemesis—every time you think you've reached the extent of his discography, there's another record to discover. To Tree aficionados, his collaboration with East Side rapper Giftz, "Nino," is a career-high watermark. That song appeared on Tree Feat. the City, a showcase for a breadth of Chicago talent all performing on Tree's broad terrain.
He's also now helping to launch younger artists. Of course, he'd previously appeared as a producer on Chance the Rapper's debut album, #10Day. He's also worked with Save Money's Brian Fresco, including on "My Niggas," which blends a thicket of backspun samples. Brian Fresco's "Bae" was one of his more interesting experiments, a Tree-produced Bop record that also interpolates "99 Luftballons." Tree's also now released two EPs with Chicago's Chris Crack, and the two have undeniable chemistry.
Oftentimes it's easiest to slip into Tree's catalog through his collaborative efforts. His voice is so distinct it can be hard to process solo for an entire tape—at least initially. 2011's The Tree EP (not to be confused with the Scion-sponsored EP he released last year) was the first tape of his I'd heard, and it remains one of his more challenging records, like a dusty, uncut gem: "Live at the Atrium" found Tree interpolating Dionne Warwick in a tux at the piano. He can range from gritty street bars to personal material and comfort-food soul music of the Sunday School series to this more experimental, unpredictable sound. But it's always filtered through idiosyncratic production choices and his own voice.
And he has a new one coming out this year: Trap Genius promises—well, it's hard to say what it will promise in terms of his career. It's likely that those who've ignored him historically will continue to do so, at least until the coolest cosign makes him worthy of knee-jerk adulation. But whatever new artists pop up in the interim, Tree is liable to be creating some of the best and most original hip-hop music long after they've washed out of the game—even if his audience remains modest for now.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.