Serengeti | Noticeably Negro (Audio 8)

As on past releases, Serengeti is alternately political, abstract, hilarious, and goofy. He sounds equally convincing rapping cynical critiques as he does silly witticisms.

 

Chicago emcee Serengeti (neé Dave Cohen) is in many ways similar to Robert Pollard, the mastermind behind Guided by Voices. Both are incredibly prolific, release almost anything they write, and have problems editing their albums. Yet music lovers keep their heads up when either artist releases new material for a simple reason: When Pollard or Serengeti are inspired, they are brilliant. Both let their great everyman personalities shine through their great work with a take-it-or leave it attitude that makes both something of cult figures (albeit to different degrees).

It's a good thing then that on Noticeably Negro, Serengeti sounds quite inspired. Working exclusively with producer Midas Wells and DJ Helias (minus one song with DJ Pickel) has resulted in a tight and unified album. Audio 8's press release accurately describes Midas Wells' beats as "gritty, yet melodic," and the majority of them boast infectious samples with great drum programming. In particular, the title track has two great piano/keyboard riffs and "T.R.I.U.M.P.H." makes great use of a guitar sample that strongly resembles the theme to Nintendo classic "Contra." Simpler than his previous lush orchestrations, Midas' backdrops allow Helias to fill in dead space with superb scratching that can be frenetic at times, but is never intrusive. Thus, Serengeti is well equipped to deliver a solid record, and for the most part follows through.

As on past releases, Serengeti is alternately political, abstract, hilarious, and goofy. He sounds equally convincing rapping cynical critiques ("And we got kids and we can't afford 'em/ so we just abort 'em/ or put 'em into homes/ and turn some little kids to orphans" from "Cauc's Remix") as he does silly witticisms ("Laughing like your aunts and uncles didn't like your brother/ or if your mom is huge and you have to say ‘That's my mother'" from "South"). Geti once again uses many deliveries, rotating between flows that are charismatic, monotonous, sly, and exasperated. The grab-bag variety approach mostly succeeds, as it did on all of his previous albums.

Then what makes Noticeably Negro different? The answer is that the surrealism and off-the-wall comedy hijinks have been toned down. That sense of mad-hatter whimsy is both Serengeti's greatest strength and weakness. By downplaying it, he has eliminated hilarious and abstract highpoints, but also the "what was he thinking?" lows from the record. The result is his most straightforward, focused, consistent, and accessible release yet.

Unfortunately, a few quibbles keep this project from achieving all that it could have. Serengeti still has a few verses or lines spread out in the record that sound as though they came from an average or bad freestyle session. There aren't enough to sabotage Noticeably Negro, but they are noticeable. Also, "Bubble's Place" and "Very Ill" sport beats that are more interesting than enjoyable and Geti doesn't rap well enough on either to save them. Lastly, Audio 8 pressed the CDs with a printing error that makes some songs hiccup (all in the same place, no matter which CD you have). Eventually, the listener can get used to this issue but they shouldn't have to in the first place.

While these problems are irritating, Noticeably Negro is still one of Serengeti's better albums. He isn't as overtly abstract or funny as on Noodle Arm Whimsy or Dennehy, but Serengeti still has plenty of imagination to spare and two talented collaborators to see his vision through. In short, Noticeably Negro is a solid album and the ideal introduction to the world of Serengeti. B+ | Bob McMahon

RIYL: MF Doom, Aesop Rock

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