Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Serengeti

  • Noticeably Negro [Audio 8, 2006] A-
  • Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) [Audio 8, 2008] A
  • Conversations With Kenny & The Legacy of Lee [Goldenfloyd, 2009] B+
  • Family & Friends [Anticon, 2011] A-
  • The Kenny Dennis EP [Anticon EP, 2012] A-
  • C.A.R. [Anticon, 2012] A-
  • The Kenny Dennis LP [Anticon, 2013] A-
  • Saal [Graveface, 2013] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Noticeably Negro [Audio 8, 2006]
In which Chicago alt-rapper David Cohn, a red diaper baby on his African side, explores the conundrums of race and the hidden injuries of class. His woozy flow gathers a musicality that combines Biz Markie and Posdnuous--half wigged-out clown, half unassuming postcollegiate, neither of which Serengeti is or pretends to be. This kind of confusion is intrinsic to how he conceives hip-hop. A song called "Negro Whimsy" is speckled with gunshots; a song called "T.R.I.U.M.P.H." celebrates cabernet and Lucille's rack of lamb. Occasionally, he stumbles into the gentility he parodies. More often he blurs goofy and brilliant so organically that he's both at once. A-

Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) [Audio 8, 2008]
In which a prolific, unknown Chicago rapper plays every part but one on a loosely chronological song cycle about a naive young rapper named Scotty, who laps over into Serengeti himself, and a much older white working-class sports fan named Kenny Dennis, whose passion for Brian Dennehy provides the album its title and his signature track its chorus: "Favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O'Doul's/Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls." (Given Kenny's accent, this rhymes perfect.) Over soul loops for Kenny and basement beats for Scotty, both rhyme about their day to day enthusiasms and travails. It's funny, not satirical--Serengeti loves these characters. And like Kenny, he also loves Kenny's wife Jueles, whose occasional background yakking is rendered by Serengeti's friend Larissa Poluchowicz with what sounds to me like a Polish-American accent, though internal evidence indicates Jueles is of Mexican descent. Maybe she's both--since Serengeti is a "noticeably Negro" man born David Cohn, that would compute fine. And in case you're wondering, "noticeably Negro" is Serengeti's phrase--the title of a 2006 album worth seeking out. There are others. A

Conversations With Kenny & The Legacy of Lee [Goldenfloyd, 2009]
There's one problem with this concept album: It's a genuine sequel, so that those who don't already know middle-aged white guy Kenny from Dennehy may have trouble relating to him as he descends into a 12-step funk. No such problem with his new acquaintance Lee, an African-American with entrepreneurial dreams of escaping his sanitation job by opening a laundromat. Sincere and clueless, Lee is defeated every which way, first by in-laws who turn Bubbles & Fun into a crack bazaar, but even worse in the end by the sincere, clueless white bohemian chick he hooks up with. Whether sampled or electro, Tony Trimm's beats lend not just musical presence but groove and a few hooks to plotting more nuanced than any summary can suggest. Hip-hop is regularly extolled for its storytelling, and there are individual tracks that justify the hype. But Serengeti's understanding of character development substantially surpasses that of, to name a personal favorite, Ghostface Killah. Even with lesser beats, it would make him a rapper worth seeking out. B+

Family & Friends [Anticon, 2011]
Where other rappers claim mere personas are "characters" (sometimes inhabiting more than one on the very same album!), Serengeti writes playlets with something like dramatis personae--not just a few slightly confused rappers, although he has several of those, but white working-class superfan Kenny, black garbage man Lee, hip-hop dilettante Derek. Over beats supplied by Yoni of Anticon rap-rockers Why?, who must envy his lyrics, and Advance Base, formerly known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, he raps as or about 11 different losers possibly including himself on 11 songs that last barely half an hour. These include a son shooting up with his formerly absentee dad, a bigamist who couldn't resist that 17-year-old, a privileged jerk who lost his job and started a blog, and an ultimate fighter who blows his knee out. Sure the tone is often depressive or satirical. But it's also often kind, pained, silly, unhinged, and other things. On Noticeably Negro, Serengeti asked: "Serengeti's very ill very understated/Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?" The answer is that the world is complicated and he damn well knows it. A-

The Kenny Dennis EP [Anticon EP, 2012]
A surprise comeback EP from the long-silent Grimm Teachaz crew may be for Kenny Dennis fans only, but he deserves more of them. Who knew from the likes of "Dennehy" that this superfan could speed-rap like on "Flat Pop"--and also, who knows what he's saying when he does? Kenny never falters as he disses Shaquille O'Neal, goes to bat for shamed Cub fan Steve Bartman, and packs a Ruger as he smacks down a loud kid, helps a stranded motorist, and tears up his parking tickets. The beats are as basic as in classic Teachaz, only modernized with extra effects, and the rhyming remains prime: "I'm Charles Bronson, I'm from Wisconsin/Chicken MCs call 'em Swanson/They get grilled up like a porkchop/Catch 'em on the street right in front of their bus stop." A-

C.A.R. [Anticon, 2012]
He sleeps on a friend's couch in Berkeley and imagines possible lives. "Your wife having a secret family in Gary/A second spouse, sorta looks like Neneh Cherry." "I want a simple life/Where we milk cows and cobras." "Buy my own street cart/Specialize in beef hearts." "Have sex with a horse./Reconsider divorce." "The antibiotics made me hallucinate/Cops arresting patients, Arabian spiders inside my arms./And then my wife got shot/She was seeing him for a year, I had no idea." "Hey, can I borrow your mind?/I really need a hit, it's been a long time." "I wish was my name was Otto/Everybody has a dream that they'll win the Lotto." Anticon minimalist Odd Nosdam provides all the beats Geti needs, and when your mind wanders, quite often the music alone carries you along. For good measure, other alienated acquaintances drop by and pitch in. Eleven tracks, half an hour. Is there anybody else who can do this? A-

The Kenny Dennis LP [Anticon, 2013]
Moving and comic new insights into David Cohn's most beloved character, with the skits precious and the rapping per se provided by KDz--including a bootleg tape by the younger Kenny's House of Pain answer group Tha Grimm Teachaz, which plays faintly behind a traffic stop (luckily, the officer at the window is Kenny's best friend Curtis), and the incomprehensible home recording "Punks." In my favorite skit, Kenny meets his lifelong protegee Ders when he's denied a cash refund on a malfunctioning no-fog shaving mirror and buys the eight-year-old a shower radio with his store credit. In my favorite rap, he celebrates wedded bliss with Jueles: "Buddhists and Cubans fit together like a Rubik's Cube." The narrative matters on this album, and as always, newcomers should hear Dennehy first. But Cohn is one of a kind, and he don't stop. A-

Saal [Graveface, 2013]
Singsong raps or vice versa on brand new marginal themes over basswise chamber-pop beats ("Accommodating," "Karate") **

See Also