Chicago rapper Serengeti’s brand of alternative hip hop often functions better as regional old school beat music than lyrical, socially conscious rap. His lyrics are hard-hitting, but obtuse and are only really brought alive by their corresponding beats.
Serengeti’s new album, Kenny Dennis LP, which refers to the fictional persona of Kenny Dennis that David Cohn of Serengeti often takes on, doesn’t stray too far from his previous material. Yet, Kenny Dennis LP is perhaps the strongest encapsulation of Cohn’s ear for beats and sense of humor, one that he uses as a lens through which to make important statements.
Serengeti’s music is not wholeheartedly original in terms of theme or style; rather, the self-deprecating, funny way in which he openly displays his influences has become uniquely reminiscent of him. Opener Bang Em is like a self-aware A Tribe Called Quest chorus (“You like ‘em, you bang ‘em/ you like ‘em, you bang ‘em/ Sometimes you don’t like/ But you still bang ‘em) stretched out over the length of an entire three-minute track; also, its beat is eerily similar to that of Scenario.
Meanwhile, Directions takes Das Racist’s penchant for cleverness and literalism and adopts it to Chicago, with Kenny waxing poetic about his suburban Chicago jogging routine and literally giving out directions to close the song. Similarly quirky, Crush Em features Kenny’s astute observations on the differences between American and English culture. On these two tracks and on Kenny Dennis LP in general, Odd Nosdam’s excellent beats give a referent, playful feel to the songs, one that effectively complements and improves Cohn’s simple vocabulary and vague storytelling.
Kenny Dennis LP also works when Serengeti attempts to reveal Kenny’s psyche and sense of time and place to the listener. Kenny is a middle-aged, schlubby, working-class Chicagoan who often reflects on his short-lived rap career. There’s not much scandalous going on in the inner workings of his mind; instead, we hear his neuroses, quirks, and half-formed thoughts, as on Punks, in which Kenny reflects on the wrongdoings of individuals in his community. More impressively, closer Flows sees Kenny ruminating on issues larger than himself, as he actively rants against corruption and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lack of care for inner city schools. While he’s not articulate enough to run for office, his heart’s in the right place.
Overall, Kenny Dennis LP is essentially and likely unintentionally a companion piece to Kanye West’s Yeezus: while West’s album used dark, glitchy styles of classic Chicago music to mirror his racial views and personal mental nadirs, Kenny Dennis LP is literally (as on Directions) a block-by-block analysis of the individuals that make up a community, one that is perhaps a bit too fun to be an effective microcosm of the city from which it came but is also the type of weird optimism that a city suffering from gun violence needs. Like Chance The Rapper’s brilliant Acid Rap, Kenny Dennis LP profiles the hooliganism and unique worldview of its subject matter without succumbing to the cynical fatalism that unfortunately characterizes the music and images of the city’s leading hip hop artists like Chief Keef.
While not a great or classic album, the accessible Kenny Dennis LP should appeal to stoned hip-hop purists and political junkies alike to whom partying to Love Sosa and I Don’t Like doesn’t appeal. With references to local sports heroes and streets but with beats from around the country, Kenny Dennis LP is unmistakably about Chicago, while a solid listen for almost any hip hop fan.