Tree Thomas in Oakland with his dog Chef. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)
Tree Thomas has always been a shapeshifter. He grew up in East Oakland, on Peach Street. After graduating college in Portland, he played pro basketball for two years in the Mediterranean island country of Malta. He came home, retired from sports, and started working with the Calculated Clothing brand and collaborating with Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates.
But even then, I was a little surprised to hear about Tree's latest incarnation as an R&B singer. The kid from way out on 96th Ave., the pro baller, the rapper on his grind—he's just released a melodic love-laced album titled B4ULUVME.
So, ya’ll know, I had to ask: who hurt you?
First, though, you’ve got to understand Tree’s approach to love: it’s a serendipitous action shown through his heart’s desire to see some good in the world. Even if it’s done in an unusual way. At least that’s what I gathered from how he found his closest companion, a dog named Chef.
“There was a homeless guy dragging him and kicking him up and down the street at a Warriors parade,” Tree told me, as he held a leash attached to Chef’s collar. He said that’s when he and a friend approached the police, asking if the boys in blue were going to do something about this case of animal cruelty. “They told us no, shrugged their shoulders. So we did something,” said Tree.
His friend grabbed the abusive owner. Tree grabbed the dog. The abusive owner tried to push back, but in the end, Tree and his friend won out.
“Whoa, that’s a bit aggressive,” I said. Tree agreed, but said that seeing a 4-month-old puppy being beaten was something he couldn’t take.
“I saw that abuse, I immediately had to step in,” said Tree. “I didn't even want a dog at the time. It just happened.”
And now the duo is inseparable.
Tree said that despite the dog's history, and the preconceived notion about his breed, his pit bull Chef is a big lover; it just needed to be in the right environment to show it.
Under Chef’s paws and Tree’s feet, on the corner where we met, sat a spray-painted stencil image of the words “Lakeshore by Tree Thomas.” It’s the remnants of a campaign from last summer, when the artist dropped a song highlighting Oakland’s lakeside strip. The track is like much of Tree’s work: lyrical, smooth, about Oakland, and something you’d kind of expect from him, given his track record.
His track record? Well, that’s where you’ll find songs with artists like Kevin Gates, Mozzy, Prezi, Mistah F.A.B. and Kevin Allen. He even has a track with NBA star Dame Lillard. (At 6'3", Lillard is probably the only artist that's worked with Thomas, 6'8", who doesn’t have to change the height of the mic when they switch places in the sound booth.)
All of the aforementioned are rap tracks. There’s some harmonizing, a bit of singing. But nothing like this new B4ULUVME project.
So, when I heard Tree singing lyrics like “I wasn’t even lonely, those feelings wasn’t hungry,” I had to spin the track back like a DJ in the club. Is… Is he singing? The whole time? What’s going on? Tree, are you an R&B artist now?
Without flinching, Tree responded, yeah. “I've been getting great response from it and I think that's the main direction I'mma go from now,” he said, sitting in front of Café Lakeview, on Lakeshore near Embarcadero.
I sat across the coffee table, damn near interrogating him at this point: So you’re an R&B singer now. How’d you get here? Who hurt you?
“There was a relationship, I just got out of it,” said Tree, as Chef sat at his feet. “Like, a long relationship actually, and it has inspired a lot of the music on this project and my previous project.”
But the move toward R&B also comes from Tree simply wanting to push himself further in his craft. His father and sister are both R&B singers, he grew up in a church, and he’s taking vocal lessons to develop his singing further.
He may jump from basketball to fashion to rapping to singing, but he always seems to do it 100 percent.
Judging from the video for the album’s first single, "YUCALLME" (why you call me?), he certainly has the R&B look down, for sure. Shirt open. Staring at the camera. I watched it and immediately thought of Jodeci.
But unlike the majority of '90s R&B that I grew up on, "YUCALLME" isn’t about being destroyed by love lost. Instead, Tree says the uptempo track is like: Man, I moved past this relationship, I’ve got my stuff together and bossed up. So, why are you calling me?
“I kind of switch the emotion, where you're not just feeling the sadness,” said Tree. “You’re kind of uplifted, you’re kind of like: why’d you call me?”
Tree says his aim was to pen a jam that's relatable. After all, everyone has experienced some sort of heartbreak. And everyone knows that feeling of picking himself or herself back up and getting back out there. Myself included.
I just didn’t have the talent to write an R&B song about it.
“I want to be able to touch as many people as I can with my music," he explains. "That's why I want to be able to touch as many genres as I can with my music: rapping, singing, and I have some pop records coming.”
Even after doing so much already, Tree's a growing artist, using different angles to reach different people in different positions. He understands that he can’t save every puppy in an abusive relationship, but maybe—just maybe, if he tells the story of bossing up and overcoming hurt—he'll be able to help people move away from fear of abuse, and toward a healthier environment of showing love.
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