Chicago rapper Tremaine “Tree” Johnson grew up in the notorious (and now demolished) Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. After dabbling in the crack game as a teenager, he realized what a dead-end street it was and focused his energies on activities less likely to land him in a cell or a casket. Unable to choose between producing or rapping, he decided to do both. He released his first mixtape, “Sunday School,” last year, and has just released a follow-up.

Tree calls his music soul trap. The term perfectly describes both his beats and his rhymes. Musically, Tree favors dusty soul samples over snapping trap beats. Lyrically, he has one foot in the gutter and one foot in the confessional booth. The album is set up like a Sunday mass, with songs divided into categories like “Call To Service,” “Hymn.” “Devotion,” and “Benediction.” Over the course of the album he tries to reconcile his life on the streets with his life at church. He can be both sacred and profane, often in the same song. He’ll rap about a strong woman on one track and then trade groupie stories with Danny Brown on another. He raps about escaping life on the streets and about selling coke to white girls. What makes Tree stand out from the other rappers trying to straddle the line between street rap and conscious rap is that Tree makes it work without sounding hypocritical or like he’s trying too hard.

Tree’s most obvious predecessor is David Banner. Both rapper/producers not only have similar gruff voices, but they both made street rap that was conscious and conscious rap that was street. That polar opposition of those two styles was too much for Banner to hang on to; it’s been years since he’s made an album that successfully mixed Southern trap, club rap, and conscious rap. Tree is better able to juggle the different styles and perspectives. This is partially because his voice is a more nimble instrument than Banner’s. Tree is able to sing his own hooks and often carries the melodies in his songs. Tree is also not trying as hard to be either a pimp or to have crossover success. Some of the tracks on “Sunday School 2” would work well in the club, but he’s not overreaching in that direction. Nor does he waste too much breath trying to convince the listener of his street cred. There is an honesty and realness to his lyrics that allows him to sell even his most pimped-out rhymes.

He starts things off with “Safe to Say.” The beat, provided by Tye Hill, lays down some booming drums over church organs. Tree proves that rhyming the same word over and over again can work in the hands of a skilled rapper:

 “To throwing rocks off the roof as a lil’ nigga
To being known in the streets as an ill nigga
Come and see me at my shows I’m a real nigga
White T’s in my threes I’m a field nigga
Nowadays everybody’s got a deal nigga”

What sets Tree apart from standard gangsta posturing is the chorus, where he sings his rhymes. That’s what he means by soul trap: he’s got the swagger of a trap rapper but delivered with the soul of a gospel singer.

“I’m like no other
My two-three brothers
They nothing like me
It’s safe to say”

While there is a definite Southern influence on Tree’s production, his Chicago roots also shine through. Several tracks are built around sped up samples, most notably “King,” which gives Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” the Chipmunk treatment. He teams up with Bink! on Devotion for some “Blueprint” era drums; “Most Successful” chops up a female vocalist; and he closes the album with two Southern club tracks produced by Bobby Johnson. Tree adapts to all of the different types of beats, showing how versatile he is as a rapper. He never sounds like a fish out of water, and makes even the most emo beats sound soulful and real.

“Sunday School 2” is everything I want from a rap album. The beats are varied, hit hard, and contain a hint of melody. Tree manages to mix braggadocio and swagger with genuine emotion, and he can sing his hooks without embarrassing himself. He’s a skilled lyricist who is insightful without being preachy, and raw without being crass. Plus its a free download, so you have no excuse to not go download this now.

Tree :: Sunday School 2: When Church Lets Out
8.5Overall Score