- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
David Cohn, who raps under the name Serengeti, is a vignette expert. He can summarize a character's entire life — or at least someone's crux and turning point — within a three-minute song, whether it's the loser UFC-wannabe who finds vindication in a bar fight on "The Whip," or the man suffering a painful breakup on "Dwight." The former is meant to be a cleverly told joke; the latter is constructed around a series of anxious questions to the woman who now rejects the man. Both songs, which hail from his 2011 album Family&Friends, epitomize the sardonic humor and deeply unsettling melancholy on which most of his catalog rests. Cohn’s best records are akin to short-story collections in how they sustain an emotional tone through an exploration of, to paraphrase Thoreau, men who lead lives of quiet desperation. (There's a third, non-Thoreau-based stream in Serengeti's catalog: the bizarre odyssey of his '90s boom-bap also-ran alter ego Kenny "KDz" Dennis, as told through 2006's Dennehy, 2010's There's a Storm on the Homefront and last year's hilariously mocking Kenny Dennis EP.)
It's hard to locate an antecedent for the Chicago rapper's music — perhaps Buck 65 in his Talkin' Honky Blues prime? Serengeti has found favor in various communities, from subterranean dwellers of his hometown's underground to the post-Project Blowed weirdos in Los Angeles, and has made records for Bay Area avant-pop label Anticon. His lyrics stack details so breezily that they turn hallucinogenic, like a heightened fantasy that intrudes upon reality; he has a functional flow, but his strength lies in a deadpan cadence that feigns reportorial objectivity. And he has a gift for capturing life situations in verse, whether it's picking apart his own foibles or someone else's. Which may be why he seems most comfortable straddling the worlds of confessional indie pop and quirky experimental rap, alongside Anticon cohort and occasional collaborator Yoni "Why?" Wolf.
As for the new Serengeti album, Saal, there are moments, like "Accommodating," where he displays an exhilaratingly sharp passive-aggression: "Maybe I could cook you dinner, stuff your sausage / Make you candles, clean your office / Paint your bedroom disco blue / Accommodating, just like you / Teach you how to fly an airplane / Build a hot rod, catch a mermaid / Rearrange your room alone / Teach you how to make cologne." But the most startling thing here is that he sings. A lot. He hasn't sung this much on a record since 2009's Terradactyl, and there he was buffeted by former musical partner and producer Polyphonic's frenetic glitch-hop. But there are no such frills here, so when his wavering voice floats over "Erotic City," it cracks audibly under a vaguely defined sadness. It's not as if he couldn’t express this better as a rapper, but opting for an unsteady croon and a vague hook heightens the romantic depression, especially when he delivers lines like, "If I could redo it all, I'd say you look nice tonight" in the style of indie-R&B heartthrob Twin Shadow.
Saal's title refers to a region of Germany; Serengeti recorded the album in Bonn with Tobias "Sicker Man" Vethake, an experimental pop musician and composer who has never had a record distributed in the United States. He proves a sympathetic and mostly unobtrusive partner: These backdrops, like the softly plucked cellos on "Karate" and the synthesized fuzziness of "Glassell Park," easily yield to Serengeti's voice. Backing up a thesis statement like "Morning time in L.A.'s such a wonderful sad," Sicker Man's IDM ambience serves to spotlight Serengeti's autobiographical journey on a bus from Oakland to "living in L.A. on hope … or close."
The neurotic bedroom synth pop here is akin to previous Serengeti albums like Family&Friends and last year's C.A.R., but here the music is sparer. He just sounds naked. As C.A.R. wound down, Cohn revealed that he'd contracted walking pneumonia and was hospitalized for several weeks — Saal suggests that he's still recovering from that near-death experience, and has lost himself in introspection over his life and career: "On not being big shit, I'm not loving obscurity / Keep it real in rap, don't mess with maturity," he sighs on "Day by Day." The anomie can be hypnotic, in an anesthetizing sort of way. On "Wedding," he's clearly in a haze as he sing-raps, over and over, "I'll wear a false nose to your wedding / I'll bring you something so you'll sleep with me."
Serengeti's emotional fragility has long been apparent, even amid the mock-bravado of the Kenny Dennis records; still, Saal is an unexpectedly downbeat chapter in an increasingly impressive discography that will likely go unappreciated until years from now, when the world is better prepared for this Randy Newman-like bard and his ruminations on our mortal coil.