Serengeti: Play Your Part

Aug 4, 2011
Originally published on August 5, 2011 10:32 pm

If the voices on Serengeti's songs often sound like they don't belong to a rapper, that's the idea. More than any MC working, Serengeti (born David Cohn) writes story songs, in which he assumes the identities of the characters he creates. Sometimes these characters recur — like Kenny, the middle-aged sports enthusiast and rabid Brian Dennehy fan, whom Serengeti dreamed up on his 2006 album, Dennehy.

On the new Family & Friends, however, almost every song introduces a new character. Serengeti's voice doesn't vary as dramatically on this album as it did on Dennehy, save for the prissy affect of the self-reinventing fool who narrates "California." But his normal delivery has its own quirks: It can be discursive and mumbly or clear and quick, as in "The Whip," which chronicles the life of a mixed martial arts fighter.

Serengeti has more talent than success, as well as more than a dozen albums to his name. Several of these are quite obscure, and most are typical underground hip-hop — more complex and drawn-out than Family & Friends, which squeezes 11 songs into just 31 minutes. The new album's title is thematic: Just about every song here concerns intimate personal relationships. Half excavate ruined marriages, and the most troubling, "Long Ears," describes the return of an absentee dad.

There's an accrued melancholy about Family & Friends that reflects both the economic downturn and the long slog of a marginal artist who's just turned 35. It's poignant that way. But one reason it's poignant is that it also has its silly side.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Critic Robert Christgau has our review.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Serengeti is a rapper from Chicago whose government name is David Cohn. He made a small splash in 2006 by impersonating a white, middle-aged Chicago sports fan who's a rabid fan of the actor Brian Dennehy, and a lot of other things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DENNEHY")

SERENGETI: Mike Ditka got fired. Favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O'Doul's, Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls. Play softball with the guys, wife made curly fries. Drink about four O'Doul's, grounded out, two pop flies. In the Buick down Western, stop and get some more brats. On sale chicken, Italian sausages, and orange pop. This week, fishing trip, gotta get some new flies...

CHRISTGAU: If you think the voice we just heard didn't sound much like a rapper, that's the idea. More than any MC working, Serengeti writes story songs about characters he makes up. Sometimes these characters recur, like Kenny, who's stuck in his Buick in "Dennehy," the song we just heard. But on Serengeti's new "Family and Friends," almost every song introduces a new character, like the self-reinventing fool who narrates "California."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA")

SERENGETI: Ever since I got divorced, everything's been going right on course. I've been riding a horse, doing a little horses, fun in shorts. Relaxing, texing, sleeping, refilling glasses of reasoning. What a great way to spend an evening. I look so good I'm beaming. Ever since I lost my job, I started a blog. It's been going so great, it's about the ins and outs of a perfect date.

CHRISTGAU: Serengeti's physical voice doesn't shift on "Family and Friends" the way it does on "Dennehy." The prissy pretension of "California" is about as far as it gets from Serengeti's normal rapping voice, which can be discursive and mumbly or clear and quick, as on the only third-person song here, the chronicle of a mixed martial arts fighter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WHIP")

SERENGETI: Around UFC 38 he tried to get back in shape, give it another shot, under hooks and learn to dirty box and (unintelligible) to go. He said he's too old for his body to (unintelligible). But in UFC 3, he chose the man with his cage, If he just would hold on or avoided, what ifs, not everyone can win championships, without knowing, it's better to not even attempt.

CHRISTGAU: The album title is thematic. Just about every song here concerns intimate personal relationships. Half excavate ruined marriages, and the most troubling describes the return of an absentee dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG EARS")

SERENGETI: Father and son time, he moved in my apartment. Mom's jealous. Daddy always shines, but I don't know. He doesn't always chip in with stuff. It was fine at first, but I never got reimbursed. And I thought it'd be romantic if we do a trust together, what a beautiful peace me and dad and a padded suite. Curses him, no stupid mouth to police. Dad got nabbed on warrant he had back east. Cops gone...

CHRISTGAU: There's an accrued melancholy about "Family and Friends" that reflects both the economic downturn and the long slog of a marginal artist who just turned 35. It's poignant that way. But one reason it's poignant is that Serengeti also has a silly side, as on the simplistic rhymes of the almost autobiographical "A.R.P."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A.R.P."))

SERENGETI: I skateboarded and hurt my knee. I sat by next to a willow tree. I drink DMT. In high school I've got (unintelligible).

BLOCK: The new album from Serengeti is called "Family and Friends." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.