Beginning with a soundbite from a Chicago news report, Tree’s “Trap Genius,” the title track from his album of the same name, is a no-holds-barred middle finger to the sky. Asking what it’s like to live in “urban America’s deadliest sector,” the reporter disintegrates into the bass line as Tremaine Johnson, AKA Tree, readily provides the answer. Johnson, no newcomer on the Chicago rap scene, currently reigns over the Soul Trap genre, one that he pretty much invented. Not to be confused with an element from the videogame Skyrim, this fairly new sub-genre of Trap relies on heavy 808s and synthesizers just like Trap does but with a more melodic flow, and with Johnson’s sampling, an often political bent.
Tackling topics close to home, Johnson’s music is lyrically heavy, switching back and forth between protest and self-indulgence. On “Look At Me Now,” Johnson comically spews lyrics like “All of my bitches like twenty / Why do they say I’m an old soul…What am I doin’ wrong?” and “I wanna drive a new Bentley / I wanna shit on my old home.” Aware of the controversial excess often seen in rap and hip hop music, Johnson pokes fun at it as he sings the track’s monotone chorus ‘Look at me now / Look at me.’ Johnson’s music is deeply rooted in his community, illuminating others on the outside about gang violence, drug abuse, and the struggle of combating with a potentially racist policeman, a topic that obviously cuts deep. Tree isn’t afraid of sounding preachy.
That said, fans of Trap music’s club beats and normally less-than-political content won’t be disappointed – you can still dance to it. Ignoring the lyrics, casual listeners can still be validated in this way. The point is though, a storyteller like Tree doesn’t really want you to. So don’t.