When, within one track, he manages to namedrop Bon Iver, Papa Roach and Neneh Cherry without breaking rhythm or letting the beat drop, you know you’re in for a fun time with the extremely prolific Chicagoan rapper David Cohn, a.k.a. Serengeti. Having put out more than ten solo releases since 2002 – and that’s before we get into collaborations, the most famous of which is the s/s/s record made with Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux – it’s clear he’s got plenty of ideas spilling out of his head. Serengeti references his hometown of Chicago in a similar way to how Beastie Boys express their love for NYC: through baseball and basketball references, and Windy City shout-outs that only natives might pick up on, and his music also matches with the often playful nature of the Beasties. In a year where we’ve had two stunning yet completely brutal hip-hop records from El-P and Killer Mike, a big hitter that wasn’t an overblown egotistical vanity project from Jay-Z and Kanye West and an as-yet-unreleased potential return to classic form from Nas, Serengeti’s C.A.R., released on Anticon and produced by Jel and Odd Nosdam, combines the bright verbosity of Blackalicious, the scratches of Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow, and the wacky, cartoonish surrealism of his label Anticon to create an album that reinforces the idea that 2012 has been the strongest year for rap and hip-hop for some time.
Things begin rather inauspiciously though with the (ugh) spoken-word bus adventures of ‘Greyhound’, a track that sounds like it borrows the elastic bassline from Bran Van 3000’s ‘Drinking in LA’, but thankfully improve quickly with ‘Talk To Me’ – the slow groove of that track giving Serengeti the space to muse on the rap game: “Rap shit don’t work, become a chauffeur/Know the streets, stadiums and tiered seats/Pop the trunk, driver, turn up Bon Iver/Disappointment, dashed hopes, want to be a scuba coach/Expand like James Pope/But instead after Bon Iver, Papa Roach”. Straight from the off you can tell this is a mind bursting with ideas, and – rather than becoming confused while setting off on flights of fancy – Serengeti’s raps are focused and incredibly sharp. The LA influence of Anticon comes to the fore in ‘Nice’, toning down on the “avant” and focusing on the “hop”, it’s a gritty experience with Serengeti’s throaty delivery hinting at a menace very much counter to the song’s title. The following track, ‘Amnesia’, is much more in the classic Anticon vein, with cartoon synths and twisted beats holding up Cohn’s rhymes in the same way that Jel and Doseone mess around with beats as members of Themselves.
What’s both slightly disappointing and a wise move all at the same time is the brevity of the tracks. ‘Nice’ and Amnesia’ come in at a combined total of about four minutes and while you’d like them to last longer, you have to admire Serengeti’s willingness to get in, get the job done and clear off before things get boring. Elsewhere, the MF Doom-isms of ‘Geti Life’ are enlivened by a typically ludicrous rap from Yoni Wolf, while the terrific groove and superb scratching of ‘Peekaboo’ hides the sleazy tale of a 12-year-old peeping tom who turns out to be an equally sordid older man: “She wore the same sweats, warm up sweats/They were turbo green/I’d often think to myself/If I only had a trampoline…”, and ‘Go Dancin’ is a marvellous clash of hip-hop and Boards of Canada-style ambient noise.
The album highlight comes in ‘Cold’, where Cohn raps about the (supposed) life he’d love to live, over some droning synths and a simple live beat: “I wanna a simple life/Where we milk cows and cobras/Coral snakes/Soufflés of the lightest cakes/Moonlighting/Stationed exercise biking/The same qualities found in the common Viking”. Nope, me neither, but the track is bloomin’ brilliant.
It’s no surprise that a man who’s worked in a shaman shop selling hallucinogens, has experienced addiction problems in his family, suffered from pneumonia that led to two minor strokes and has a 48-year-old alter ego (Kenny Dennis) besotted with acting “greats” Brian Dennehy and Tom Berenger is able to create beats and rhymes that never let the listener’s attention wander. C.A.R, though not without its faults, is a fascinating record and a crazy journey into a wonderfully creative mind.