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Rap Monthly: Tree Traces His Comeback, Plus Chief Keef, Doja Cat, and More

Spin’s Rap Monthly column interviews an artist making waves, reviews selections from the past month, and holds some lame shit accountable.

Tree knows I have one big question, and he answers before I have the chance to ask. “I’ll give you the whole spiel, and I’ll be completely honest with you,” he says over the phone, a few days after releasing We Grown Now, his first solo album since 2015. “I been trying to leave the music. Like the actual participating, I really hated it. I got a love-hate relationship with the music, and it was because I had looked up, five years, I was 31 years old, and I didn’t own shit.”

The rapper and producer born Tremaine Johnson, raised in Chicago’s since-demolished Cabrini-Green Homes, started releasing music in 2010 as a side-hustle in his mid-20s. He dropped his first mixtape The 3rd Floor while working at Nordstrom, at the encouragement of a co-worker, Marco Dane, a member of then-buzzing group Project Mayhem, which adopted Tree as an honorary member. On a series of releases over the following two years, culminating with 2012’s Sunday School, Tree perfected a singular lo-fi sound he dubbed “soul trap” that combined Lex Luger-era trap drums, jagged soul samples ripped from YouTube, and raspy-voiced, painfully detailed stories of drug deals, revelry, and religious anxiety. While remaining independent, he earned critical acclaim, blog fame, a spot at 2013’s Pitchfork Festival, and the opportunity to tour the world.

Tree says now that he never wanted all the attention. Performing gave him ulcers, the size of his booking fees didn’t justify the stress, and he recognized the danger of rap celebrity in a city that has lost several success stories to gun violence. “I didn’t necessarily get into the music to be a star. I was just trying to get posted on FakeShoreDrive and get my music played on the Sunday night local [radio],” he says. As he started to outgrow those ambitions, though, “I couldn’t advance. I couldn’t ever buy a gold grill. Not that I would, but you know, shit, this money didn’t cover that.” To the disappointment of his cult following, Tree quietly stepped away from music in 2016. He explains, “The out was when I found how to make money without being famous.”

Tree, 36, is a landlord now. He started flipping houses and owns residential buildings in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. It provides stable income, and just as important, privacy. He talks about property as his legacy, and looks forward to handing some down to his two sons, Allen and Mason. “In my absence of music, I got my life together,” he says. “I got my kids living on the same block as me in one of my buildings. You know, I collect rent every month. Shit, I don’t have to work no more. Life is good. God is good.”

His return to music reflects that peace of mind. Tree says he started collecting beats and “dibbling and dabbling” again last August. A four-day marathon session in his home studio with Vic Spencer late last year was the tipping point; the pair released the product, Nothing IS Something, in January. His comeback’s masterwork, though, is March’s We Grown Now, a 13-song meditation on parenting, family, and survival that centers the love and perseverance of Tree’s partners and elders. (“She don’t talk about it, say it’s the past / Never walkin’ past the place that he passed / The devil humble, handsome, and he can dance.”) It’s a wise, vivid, and frequently heartbreaking memoir, unselfish and unrighteous, over a collection of vintage soul-trap beats. Tree says he freestyled the album alone, over liquor and weed, at times through tears.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve called We Grown Now “grown folks music.” How do you define that?

I am so proud of that. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m trying to establish this as a zone or a mode within trap and soul trap. I don’t want to go off and be cliche and give it a whole ‘nother, you know, genre or nothing. But grown folks music, this here is the green light and the ability to be an adult in this music game. This is the ability to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and stand on it. This is a place in music where you can stand up and say, I take care of my kids, I sacrifice my life to give them more than my father gave me. It wasn’t with trapping and moving keys. It wasn’t cause I was Big Meech. It was just my hard work and great investments. It’s an understanding and an economic literacy.

It was also a reflection on the mistakes I made and what I’ma have to go through with my kids. Running away from home to sell drugs as a 14-year-old, 15-year-old, and my father coming through the projects looking for me, asking the big guys, you seen my son? You know my son, the one with the birthmark. And my friends would have me out and I would sell drugs. I would skip school to sell drugs, make me a hundred dollars, and it was all about Jordans then, and getting fast food from the corner store, chicken wings and pizza puffs and shit, and having the big bankroll full of 1s and 5s. That’s what it was about. Now I got to worry about that with my kids, but the difference is I got some help for my kids. I got a summer job for ‘em. Come around and clean up some of these properties, keep this shit clean. This ours. I’m showing them integrity about, you know, what we own. That’s what grown folks music is.

How has your perspective on family changed since you were a kid?

It was always a tight-knit group. There’s a documentary [in development] about the death of Dantrell Davis in Chicago. I gave my spiel about it, my experiences, and so on and so forth. I asked the young lady [filmmaker Minhal Baig], had she gotten any of the mothers’ takes on being a mother in that time, and seeing these little boys being shot in the head with a high-powered rifle from a high-rise in front of school, while he was entering school? They were getting my take on it because I was at that age at the time, but there were mothers out there that were walking their kids to school, so I gave her that. She’s like, that’s interesting. So I invited her to my family’s house and we all ordered chicken, my auntie cooked, and it was maybe 10, 11 of us, and we just met there to talk to her and tell our stories. That’s my family. That’s really my family in Chicago. When I dropped [Baig] off back at where she stayed, she said, I just can’t believe how, that’s so much love that I’ve never seen. I love my family, but it’s not like you guys. You just love each other. And I told her, we was always broke. All we had was love and god. So to answer your question, family is all that there is to me now.

Have you received feedback on your new music from your sons or anyone else in the family?

That’s funny. I don’t come around and say, I want you to hear my music. I just kinda put it out and then, people that talk about it, I’m like, blushing and shit. My family, they do hear about it, they do see the posts, and they do say, I like this, I like that. But I don’t force it on them. It’s not a thing. We don’t play my music at family reunions, none of that. We don’t talk about music. My brothers don’t even know I put out an album. My kids, Mason, he listens to XXXTentacion and Kodak Black.

The conversation that came up was, I like the picture you put up on Instagram and Twitter. And my auntie commented on it. The album cover is her in her twenties or thirties or something, and my cousins, and the resilience in their photo. They’re all in their Easter’s best, Easter Sunday in Cabrini-Green. They’re all happy and they look good, you know what I’m saying? The fact of it is, everybody on that poster, everybody on that album cover is grown now. One of them is a minister. One of them is a regional [manager] for Foot Locker. We’re all doing something. We’re alive. We’re from Chicago. We’re from Cabrini-Green.

You close the album with a letter addressed to Project Mayhem. What inspired that song?

Marco and Lennon, you know, they were my support system, my entire backing through my entire run. They are the reason I felt that I had to continue on doing the music. They bought me outfits to look good at Pitchfork. They gave me money to go to South by Southwest. They booked me rooms and condominiums so I could look like I was a star. They spent their own money on me because this is one of ours. [Writers] compared me to fucking Young Thug and Future and Rick Ross. These mother fuckers got on diamonds and shit. You know what I’m saying, I got to have on RSVP shirts, and I got to have on Just Don hats and shit. Them shits six-, eight-hundred dollars. They would spend their own money to make me look good. So I couldn’t stop. I owed it to them to get some fucking money, bring some money, and make us a star.

The real reason behind that song is they Vice Lords, and I come from a GD [Gangster Disciples] hood, and necessarily in Chicago we not supposed to get along. But in the song, I tell you how I’m loyal to my family and my neighborhood, but when it come to them, well shit, all that shit go out the window, especially if you’re in my circle, you know? That was just a letter of loyalty and commitment to the goal, even now. I feel good being able to write that and put that into words, and for it to come off so raw, for it to fall into place like that. If you in Chicago, it was tasteful and it was respectful and it was tolerable. Ain’t nobody giving it no feathers, it’s just speaking facts from a grown man point of view, and people take it like butter on toast.

What are your goals for music going forward?

I wanna push this grown folks music. I want to push this reality rap. I want my fanbase to gather and reassemble. I want to sell some soul trap t-shirts, soul trap merch. I want to reestablish my lane in music on my terms. I don’t want to be Chance. I don’t want to be Wiz Khalifa. I want to be Tree. I want to do small sets, 100 people who are gonna pay $50 each to see me, who really are fans and know my words, and I kinda just want to take it slow. I’m not trying to get a record deal. I’m not trying to be 6ix9ine. I don’t want porcelain teeth. I don’t want new teeth. I just want to make a stream of money, better my life, cushion my future a little bit more, and I kinda want to use my music to do that. Really utilize the resources that I have now to, like I said, make a little money off of this rap. Because when I put out Sunday School, I didn’t have a t-shirt, and I was getting all this attention. I didn’t have a plan.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Man, I’m just giggly. This last week, man. I accept and absorb it differently. The first time I was kinda shocked and amazed or whatever. Now I’m just giggly.

Look Back At It

Over the past month, Spin enjoyed rap music that mourned, meow’d, and quoted 17th century samurai. These and other recommendations below.

Top Spin: Chief Keef and Zaytoven – GloToven

Chief-Keef-Glotoven

Listening to any recent Chief Keef mixtape feels like taking a tour through both street rap’s past and future. “Life is fabulooouss,” Keef sneers on the first track of his recent collaborative tape with Zaytoven, GloToven, and his raspy extension of the final vowel recalls Gucci Mane’s “yeaaa, boyyyy” ad-lib, made famous on the Atlanta legend’s indefatigable mixtape run of the late 2000s. Many of Gucci’s projects at the time, of course, contained beats by Zaytoven, and, frankly, the release of a collaborative tape between Keef and Zay—already a trap music veteran when Keef emerged nearly eight years ago—should have happened back in 2013. At that time, the pair released a few exciting standalone singles, officially and unofficially, with the promise of a complete project that never came. At the point, those songs, which were destined to be left floating in the YouTube and Worldstar ether, demonstrated that Chief Keef was not content to rest on his laurels as a stylist. Instead, he insisted on continuing to move into more unusual and less compromising musical territory, and away from mainstream acceptance.

Now, finally, an official project featuring Zay and Keef has arrived, and the chemistry is still there, if hearing a synthesis of their trademark styles feels much less surprising that it was six years ago. Both parties’ inventiveness and sense of how to use negative space in on full display across its 12 tracks, so GloToven offers more variety in terms of dynamics and flow than a garden-variety project by one of Keef’s many younger imitators. (Lil Pump shows up on track 2 to throw the disparity between Keef’s pliability and humor and the default gestures of the least exciting new school trap-and-drill-influenced rap music into stark relief.)

There are plenty of beats here for which only Zaytoven could have reasonably been responsible. For instance, the New Age piano undulations in “Ain’t Gonna Happen” inspire Keef to lapse into ballad mode, mourning lost friends and his broken childhood. Elsewhere, he adopts more playful modes: Young-Thug-like singsong, translated here into a more carefully regulated flow (“Spy Kid”) and Playboi Carti’s slipped, syllabic delivery, but more virtuosic and full of cogent one-liners (“Six still in the box, I’m damn near all he got / All this cash and sauce, need me a broom and a mop”). Modern, rock-and-emo-enamoured Soundcloud-rap stylists may be slowly moving away from some of the styles and textures evidenced on GloToven, but Keef and Zaytoven still make clear the way in which they influenced the shape of street rap to come.—Winston Cook-Wilson

Burna Boy and DJDS – Steel & Copper

Nigerian Afrobeats star Burna Boy has formed an unexpectedly alchemic musical relationship with the L.A. production team DJDS (formerly known as DJ Dodger Stadium). The fruits of their partnership comes in the form of a surprise 4-track EP, titled Steel & Copper, that transitions Burna Boy’s deep and grisly melodic raps to a somewhat more traditional 808-heavy sound. On its surface, this may sound unappealing to Burna Boy’s fans but really it serves him well. He has a natural groove and charisma that comes through on his flows, which slip and slither across the tracks here, worming its way into your brain permanently.

Only a year from the release of his last album, the phenomenal Outside, Burna Boy is in top form, rapping in an off-kilter, whimsical style but with fierce abandon, breathing vibrant life into DJDS’ cold, trunk-rattling production. DJDS’ tracks are stylized and funky, but Burna Boy’s star power elevates them. Listening to him morph into something between Busta Rhymes and Young Thug over the ominous pianos of “Innocent Man” is enough to be entranced into his cult of personality alone. Steel & Copper in a short amount of time provides a tempting sketch of Burna Boy’s potential. —Israel Daramola

DJ Muggs and Mach Hommy – Tuez-Les Tous

Among the legion of post-Roc Marciano shit-talkers from Buffalo to Newark, Mach Hommy is by far the most strange. He masks his face, keeps his thousand-dollar mixtapes off streaming, and explains himself in rare interviews in true lol-wut fashion. Somehow, Cypress Hill’s longtime producer DJ Muggs, currently in the midst of his own renaissance, convinced Mach to join forces on an actual commercial release, Tuez-les Tous. (That’s French, one of Mach’s several languages, for “kill them all.”) It’s an eccentric set of violent digressions and philosophical musings over ghoulish saloon piano loops, as likely to be interrupted by ripped interludes from black nationalists as quack epigeneticists, with the ire’s aim alternating between the music industry and stray chumps. On “Wet Bally,” Mach cites a Killamanjaro sound clash from 1997 and Lord of the Rings. The next song references Martin and an Ivory Coast political dispute. Miyamoto Musashi, George Orwell, Wim Hof, and Ray Lewis’ cream suit all receive shout-outs. Mach might be the YouTube generation’s GZA: the smartest person in the dojo, increasingly entertaining as his coherence strains.—Tosten Burks

Doja Cat – Amala (Deluxe Edition)

Doja Cat’s March reissue is a cynical-ish ploy to juice album streams from “Mooo!” and “Tia Tamera” listeners, but it’s also a useful opportunity to reflect on her studio debut, which came and went last year without much fanfare. “Mooo!”—Doja’s after-the-fact meme sensation—was an off-the-cuff throwaway that went viral on the strength of its perfectly goofy video and preposterous swagger, both of which anticipated our present yeehaw craze. It also made clear her ability to at once execute absurd concepts with sticky melodies and a straight face. Amala succeeds when it creates space for that silliness, something that unfortunately doesn’t happen enough. Middle-ground R&B cuts like “Roll With Us” and “Morning Light,” while executed proficiently, could be anyone’s records, but the “meow, meow, meow” backing vocals on “Wild Beach” and extended oral sex/baked goods metaphor on “Cookie Jar” are memorably wacky bits of pure Doja—as is comparing her breasts to grown-up child stars on the newly added Rico Nasty collab. Alas, her label, Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe, still seems resistant to letting her comic sensibility run wild. How else to explain the absence on this edition of Doja’s gorgeous a capella hot take, “Waffles Are Better Than Pancakes?”—Tosten Burks

Lil Skies – Shelby

Roughly one year since studio debut, Lil Skies is a bona-fide star. With more than a few breakout hits to his name (“Red Roses,” “Nowadays,” “Welcome to the Rodeo“), the Pennsylvania rapper has emerged as a major player in the teenage SoundCloud scene’s maturation into full-on celebrity, in no small part thanks to his warbling R&B vocals and impressive sense of melody. On his sophomore effort Shelby, Skies doubles down on his early affinity for pop. Tracks like “Breathe,” “Blue Strips,” and “Through The Motions” weave the sonic claustrophobia of his early mixtape standouts into icy trap-pop collages with better beats, tighter hooks, and a conscious understanding of what works for him. Such is the nature of artistic growth, which for Skies resembles a sort of clarifying process, refining what’s been there since the beginning.—Rob Arcand

Plus: Billy Woods and Kenny Segal’s Hiding Places is the year’s sharpest anti-capitalist dark comedy; Tisakorean’s A Guide to Being a Partying Freshman stretches Texas dance-rap in goofy new directions; Maxo’s LIL BIG MAN articulates intergenerational depression with stunning narrative clarity; and Judah’s called by name introduces a thoughtful new character in the New York sLUms crew’s cinematic universe.

Get Out the Way

One of the funniest moments on Nav’s sophomore album Bad Habits comes on the third song, “Taking Chances,” which is actually a song about how he doesn’t like taking chances, in case you were wondering. During the second verse, the Weeknd hanger-on, confident that freestyling songs bit-by-bit is the proper path to inspiration, tosses out the line, “Walk in my closet, I can’t tell you my favorite, I got plenty clothes.” To his credit, it’s true to character. As hard as Nav tries, he can’t describe, explain, or justify himself. “All my haters keep getting madder, as they should / That’s a good indication that I’m doing good,” he closes the verse, as the off-brand Wheezy beat mists into the chorus. At the risk of providing further validation, I’d like to clarify that I’m not mad. When I hear Nav sing the hook, “See them XO boys like, ‘There they go’ / The money goin’ where they go,” like he’s a mere admirer, I’m actually quite sad. —Tosten Burks

This has been April’s installment of Rap Monthly. Revisit past editions here.