Album Review: Serengeti - Family & Friends
“When things aren’t going quite as planned / You often hear the truth from your family and friends...”
Family & Friends is a tenth full-length outing for Chicago native Serengeti (or David Cohn, as he's known to his mum), and his first solo LP for the wonderfully eclectic anticon. imprint. Fans of WHY?, Odd Nosdam and Doseone will know that hip hop records released under this banner are seldom either 'traditional-sounding' or overly po-faced, and this loosely-defined M.O. is once again followed here as 'Geti offers up eleven concise and left-of-centre hip hop nuggets.
Opener ‘Tracks’ finds Cohn rhyming about the pressures of life and love, as well as the banality that can arise from both. Laced with endearingly amateurish strings, it features producer Yoni Wolf (of WHY?/cLOUDDEAD fame) guesting with his signature nasal twang. Elsewhere, ‘PMDD’ is a spoken-word affair on which Cohn obsesses over a girl in a medicine commercial; its descending keys and smoky refrain carry the hallmarks of the perfect pop song, and yet there is something wonderfully off-kilter about it at the same time. ‘Long Ears’, meanwhile, deals with the return of an estranged musician father, and the drugs dad and son take together to mark this glorious reunion: “Please, don’t leave me again / I know I’m a grown person / But I could use your fatherly grin...”. Not long into Family & Friends, then, it's clear where the album's charms lie: its dysfunctional tales of life (or lives) gone wrong are told with enough poignancy to forge something new altogether - ‘kaleidoscopic hip hop’, if you will.
‘Godammit’ continues this thematic trend, Cohn rapping about dating a girl twelve years his junior and having to lie about his age well into their subsequent marriage - while continuing with his existing one. ‘California’ darkens the LP's humorous assault still further, dealing as it does with the upsides of nose jobs/divorce/blogging and canine deaths - all offset by a booming Primal Scream-esque chorus of "Reinvent yourself, California!". ‘The Whip’ - the only track here to venture past five minutes - has sullen pop hooks and hilariously beat-boxed whipping sounds soundtrack the life, times and regrets of a fictional UFC fighter named Gary 'The Whip' Moore (now that is one of the weirdest sentences this writer has had the pleasure of writing in a while!). The title track is home to another of Wolf's distinctive guest appearances, and its ramshackle, stuttering rhythm arguably wouldn’t sound out of place on a WHY? record.
It is Cohn’s unique blend of black comedy and sincere sentiment that sets him apart from any number of lesser 'alt. hip hop' artists. At times here he seems intent on hunting down the most mundane rhymes and running with them to a near-ludicrous extent, in the process creating a bizarre form of free association. Take, for instance, 'A.R.P.''s madcap standout verse: “Last weekend I tried some blow / Kept fucking with my ear, sorta like van Gogh / Around here like The Counting Crows / They said turn it down, but I said hell no” - equal parts endearing and unhinged, much like the record as a whole. As an added bonus, no track overstays its welcome, while the production and arrangement flourishes are refreshingly wacky yet subtle. In a genre that frequently stands accused of having run out of ideas, Family & Friends is a pithy and brave offering that's well worth checking out.