Album Review: Serengeti ‘C.A.R.’
Chicago rapper Serengeti has had a strange career to this point. Despite having a sound that is accessible on many levels and releasing music for over ten years at an incredibly prolific pace, his buzz has remained largely “Under The Underground”, which happens to be a song title on his most popular album Dennehy. His off-the-cuff, humorist style is the focus of all of his releases from his alter ego Kenny Dennis (including the excellent Kenny Dennis EP from earlier this year), but the depth and creative introspection of last year’s LP Family & Friends was Serengeti at his artistic best. All of the incredibly detailed stories and references gave the album a strong emotional core, but when I found out that much of the album was Geti writing half-truths and fiction, I was truly blown away.
Hip hop is nothing if it isn’t a personally revealing genre, but Serengeti forgoes all the trappings of conventional ‘skillz’ and makes his impact in other areas. While his stories may be fictional, they’re told with such conviction and detail that you can’t help but believe them. His flow isn’t complex and he doesn’t draw upon a giant vocabulary, but his subtle wordplay and creative song subjects give his compositions endless replay value. Serengeti’s new album C.A.R. is his second project produced by Anticon’s Jel and Odd Nosdam following the Kenny Dennis EP. While C.A.R.’s analog feel gives the album a bit of a throwback vibe, the album’s musings on relationships make it a spiritual successor to Family & Friends. Jel and Odd Nosdam and their Anticon label are industry outsiders themselves, but represent the most accomplished producers Serengeti has worked with to this point in his career, and they don’t disappoint on C.A.R. Their beats range from melodic bangers to buzzing, dissonant concoctions, but Geti sounds comfortable on everything. His conversational flow and simple rhyme schemes make his verses sound easy to write, but if you really listen to his lyrics and let his concepts reveal themselves, the amount of work he puts in becomes clear.
I highlighted the song “Talk To Me” previously for Thought On Tracks and it’s definitely one of C.A.R.’s standout songs. Geti starts the song by describing his frustration in his music’s niche following before seeming to accept his lot and recognizing there are several ways to look at the world. The combination of frustration and acceptance is a common one on C.A.R., he has every right to be frustrated that his brilliant music isn’t getting the push that it should, but he recognizes that dwelling on the frustration is wasted energy. “Geti Life” is another lyrical tour-de-force that features Geti in prime self-deprecating mode, yearning for a hit record and telling tales of trying to get props (and girls) through his name dropping of more famous musician friends (Jel and Why?’s Yoni Wolf). Serengeti shows off his referential humor towards the end of the track with the lines- “My favorite team is the ’87 Cubs, I love Hawk Dawson, I never felt awesome/ It’s always been a huge problem, I have a huge nose like that woman on Blossom”.
As I mentioned before, Serengeti writes a lot of songs about relationships, specifically with women. His own personal history with women includes divorce and the unexpected death of a long-time girlfriend, so it makes sense that his stories involving women and relationships have a dark edge to them. The difference from most MC’s who’ve experienced hardship though, is that instead of truly baring his soul and writing about his specific experiences, he masks them through his fictional stories. While these stories may not be accounts of his own personal experiences, they feel incredibly real and seem to be at least based around emotions Geti has experienced, if not actual events.
“Go Dancin” is a song about a relationship that starts off promising (commitments to go dancing, get a puppy, travel, and learn Spanish) but turns into a song about isolation and growing apart. The melancholy production reflects the song’s tone and adds to the feeling of desperation that is present throughout the album. C.A.R.’s final song “Uncle Traum” is a heartbreaking story that Geti delivers in spoken word about a character whose wife was killed while cheating on him. The songs chilling detail in lines like “I called the wife’s folks to find out when the funeral was, no one ever answered the phone”, makes me feel that while the story is likely fictional, a lot of the emotion and detail comes from a real place. “Amnesia” is a playful song, but has a deep underlying message. Serengeti’s wish to “get amnesia and see you again” is a clear yearning for a past relationship that ran its course. Sometimes insurmountable negative thoughts and events prevent us from continuing personal relationships, Geti accepts this, but wishes he could erase these occurrences from his head “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” style and press the reset button.
The song “Chill” is reminiscent of Geti’s verse on “Universe Man” from Open Mike Eagle’s new album 4NML HSPTL. Geti gives listeners a series of quirky suggestions (“become a dentist, write poetry with quills/ exact your vengeance, become more skilled”) on how to live a fulfilled life and appreciate the small things. “Peekaboo” is the type of song that only Serengeti could make, a story about a 12 year old peeping tom who gets his shoulder broken by the brother of the girl he was taking pictures of. Geti’s hilarious story ends with him saying that he actually shared the photos with the girl years later when she was back in town. The track also features some amazing scratches by Jel on the hook as well as a perfect MF DOOM sample, “I’m at where your sister went”. Jel also contributes the album’s only guest verse on “Nice”, a dusty banger that features Jel and Geti reminiscing about the days they were riding Huffys and finding their way.
Because of his multiple recording personas and perspectives, the range of Serengeti’s appeal is wide, but the focused, distilled vibe found on C.A.R. and Family & Friends is the type of powerful, creative music that should be championed across the blogosphere and should truly allow Geti to reap the benefits of his labor. C.A.R. and Family & Friends both feature a runtime that is right around a half hour, but both albums are literally packed with thought provoking material and truly feel like LP’s, not random and unfulfilled EP’s. I had the pleasure of chatting with Serengeti at his amazing show at the Indianapolis institution the Jazz Kitchen last week, and while the performance was amazing, the fact that he confirmed this album was two years old and that he has a large number of releases lined up for the next year might have been the best part of the evening. Serengeti may have already accepted his current niche status in the hip hop universe, but it seems like he’s also accepted that his music is incredibly valuable and worth making, even if a larger audience hasn’t come around to what he is doing. Buy C.A.R. here and get hip to one of one of the most original musicians doing it in 2012.
Written by John Bugbee