Album Review: Serengeti ‘Saal’
Given the minimal amount of traditional “rapping” on Serengeti’s new album Saal, his first with Atlanta label Graveface, it’s hard to classify it as a hip hop record. The only records I can think to compare it to are Geti’s last couple solo efforts Family & Friends and C.A.R., yet Saal is such a departure from the sound of those two albums that it’s really in a league of its own. Not that it’s considerably better than those albums, but something is different with this one. It feels like an album and a sound that he has been building towards while creating a new style of songwriting.
Saal was made in Germany with German producer Sicker Man. Serengeti has worked with some great producers recently, but he has never had beats that fit him quite as well as Sicker Man’s mad scientist like productions. Sicker Man uses a combination of guitars, cellos, synthesizers and a liberal amount of reverb and analog effects to create psychedelic soundscapes that enhance Serengeti’s expressive vocals. A handful of their collaborations that didn’t make the LP have surfaced as mp3’s and they are every bit as good as the eight songs that made the cut. The outstanding overall quality of every song the duo recorded has me hoping that Serengeti has more trips to Germany planned in the near future.
Many of the themes found in his last two albums (relationships, regret, change, acceptance) are present here, but Serengeti’s rhymes and especially his delivery seem more emotional and vulnerable than ever before. When Serengeti says “It’s great, it is…it is” self convincingly at the end of “Day by Day” it’s easy to sense the hesitation in his voice. Serengeti’s stream of consciousness storytelling style has always had strong, internal emotional content, but for someone that does “a lot of music that’s written in secret code,” Saal feels more revealing than anything he has done to this point. Serengeti’s comfort in his current style allowed him to truly put himself into these songs and exorcise some demons. His raw performance and ability to shift freely from rapping to talking to singing to mumbling and back to rapping help make Saal a defining work and potential classic.
The album’s beautiful closer “Erotic City” is perhaps the best example of his accomplishment. The song is a snapshot of someone “heading to LA on hope” like Geti did a few years ago to record his last few albums. The song captures a universal feeling of embarking on a new journey equally full of hope and fear. Whether the journey is fruitful or not doesn’t matter, the song encapsulates the in-the-moment emotions associated moving to a place like LA with your back against the wall perfectly. The way he sings “Erotic City” on the chorus and calmly speaks his verses over Sicker Man’s buzzing production, it sounds like he almost wishes he could recapture that time and feeling he once had about LA.
The preceding song “I Could Redo” features more heart-wrenching singing from Serengeti about a regretful night from a past relationship. It features my favorite line from the album, “I hid in your hidden traits.” Geti’s been through a lot and it’s the way he is able to analyze his past and his decisions in unique ways that makes his music so rewarding. His simple story of a boy’s karate being no match for an abusive guardian on “Karate” is the type of song that only Serengeti could make. It’s the same type of song that always leaves me questioning whether the song is about Geti or someone he knows. It’s never quite clear and that’s a big part of Serengeti’s appeal.
“Glassell Park” has become my favorite song of the bunch. A hazy production shifts over a simple bass line as Geti paints a picture of a bum as “the happiest man in Glassell Park” on the first verse and himself as the “happiest man” for the second. “Accomodating” is another creative song that puts a spotlight on a certain kind of person, the person that seems more concerned with putting others at ease than themselves. Geti asks them “What do you like to do?” and promises to “make you more complicated too”. Every song on Saal works great on the surface level while harboring added layers of depth for those willing to dig.
I have heard many people use words like bleak and sad to describe this record. While there are definitely depressing feelings expressed on Saal, that’s not the overarching vibe I get from the album. There is a subdued optimism about Serengeti throughout Saal that makes me feel he knows he’s finding more artistic comfort and freedom. Geti himself says on the song “Seasons” “I haven’t had the perfect time yet…I’m betting on myself again”. Despite all Serengeti’s been through, not only is he not giving up, he’s making the best music of his career. Pick up the album over at Graveface Records.
Written by John Bugbee