The hip hop artist speaks candidly about his writing, his new album, the meeting of Kenny and Ajai, and his love for the Before Sunrise trilogy.
When the evocative rap artist Serengeti offered to send me a digital copy of his new album, The Gentle Fall, I was excited to listen, but unprepared for what I heard.
Geti, as his fans affectionately call him, recently teased the album on Instagram, his third release of the summer, but remained coy about its content. Geti is prolific; he has too many albums and side projects to count, but everything he releases contains intricate word play and demonstrates a writer’s attention to words, detail, cadence and sound.
It’s “melancholy,” he told me in an email. The new album may be “unlistenable,” he wrote, something he also expressed to fans on Instagram.
“I like melancholy kind of shit, but not the drivel thing. If it’s fake, it feels like drivel,” he told me later. “The Richard Linklater trilogy, starting with Before Sunrise, all those movies are masterfully done. They’re melancholy but they don’t hang there, where it comes out like blather.”
I cued up the first song, “Richard Dreyfus,” on my phone, hit play and listened. Over a finger-picked guitar, Serengeti half sang, half spoke, his voice expressive in its restraint, a hint of Lou Reed in its tone, a meditative take on life and loss, and calamity, sometimes, or always, a phone call away.
“We all get a shot/we all get a time to ball/So prepare your pillow for the gentle fall/I always wanted those glasses Richard Dreyfus had in Jaws/I always wanted to have those glasses Richard Dreyfus had in Jaws.”
Quoting a line from the song, Serengeti picks up the theme to me. “Life can change in an instant when you get that call. We’ve all had some tragedy strike us.”
Serengeti is the William Faulkner of rap. Or, maybe, he’s more Jesmyn Ward, the Mississippi writer, who chronicles the worlds of ordinary people striving to get by in the Gulf Coast of the United States. Or maybe, he’s more like a Beat Generation poet, jazz in his rhythm and vocal delivery, especially noticeable, when his voice is unadorned by music, spitting words like a percussion instrument.
Serengeti took some detours in the journey of his art: Sisyphus, with Sufjan Stevens and Son Lux, The Grimm Teachaz, Perfecto. But, as the characters Kenny Dennis and Ajai, he conjured up other worlds in great detail, and told well-crafted stories about the lives of distinctive people, all the minutiae cooked up in his imagination. The stories are rich; he creates his own Yoknapatawpha County, where people crowd the bar, and toss back an O’Douls, or spend every moment driven to accumulate swag, a pursuit that provides some meaning and purpose, until tragically and inexorably, it doesn’t.
Serengeti may work some personal shit out in his songs when he inhabits those characters. But that’s what Kenny Dennis and Ajai are, characters conceived in his imagination. There is nobody like Serengeti in hip hop, and he gives many singer-song writers a run for their money, a unique artist with a novelist’s eye for the particular. If you haven’t, you should immerse yourself in his art. You won’t be sorry.
The Gentle Fall is no different. Small moments in life, observed by Serengeti, people in everyday, mundane places, and it all adds up to an empathic portrait of humanity, awash in pathos.
Consider the origins of “King Bed,” the second track on The Gentle Fall. “I was riding my bike home and there was a fella, and he was unwrapping plastic from a new couch. I was also riding and I saw a fella sitting on a bench, just enjoying the sunset.” In Serengeti’s mind, the men could be divorced, or they could be appreciative of a new start in life, or both. These images evolved into “King Bed.”
“Just a single fella, alone/Havin’ a time in the sunset/Not worried about expectations/that ain’t done yet.” Then, “New furniture for the new house/Plastic in the garbage can, never been used/Love seat, took a beat, remembered honeymoon cruise/See if this resonates, the story in my head/It was before the sunrise, a curious red/There was promise ahead, the sky turned blue/New windows for the duplex, this king bed fit two.”
Or, consider the opening bars of “Ajai,” the title cut from the album of the same name, released in April with producer Kenny Segal: “Fella was able to quit his job, because he sold his uniform on-line to a rich Kuwaiti kid/He got a new off-white Best Buy polo drop/He said ‘Honey it’s a Chinese market, Panda Express apron drop, barely a few racks, can’t cook with it any more’/She said ‘Hype Beasts is officially done, cancel that order of Kith and Chinese market you in now.’
Or, the second verse from “Ok In My Book,” a song from 2018’s Dennis 6e: “Supercalifragilistic Mississippi spelling bee/Catch me in Florida, hangin’ with the manatees/Catch me in a canopy/All you do’s profanities/All Kenny’s raps should be studied in Humanities/Now I’m living happily/Wanting you to laugh with me/Want you to calm down, break down/Livin’ your apathy/Money in my Pegasus/Money in my Previses.”
Segal has been one of Serengeti’s greatest collaborators. The pair have made seamless music together, Serengeti’s hand in Segal’s glove. But on The Gentle Fall, Serengeti shows that he doesn’t need an elaborate foundation to create deeply moving vignettes of lives being lived, not by swells, but by people whose lives feel constricted, and limited by circumstances beyond their control, people who live pay check to pay check, people with broken marriages and broken dreams, outsiders, the guy who doesn’t fit in, the woman working two jobs, people who struggle.
Some of the songs on The Gentle Fall include elaborate back stories, like the two nominally about wrestlers, “Duggan” and “TvT (undertaker),” but which are about so much more than that. “Calm Calm” imagines a “new way of thinking that spreads through prison systems, so pleasant, that people want to go to prison to escape freedom,” Serengeti wrote to me when I asked him about the song. “Escape from freedom,” a weirdly incongruous concept, that is a persistent Serengeti motif, and it rings true to life.
“Camp Summer,” which closes the album, contains images of a redolent August, and all signs mark the end of the summer, a summer that perhaps never lived up to its expectations and promise. The song is jaunty, and the melody owes something to ragtime, or perhaps to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”: “The humming bird feeder fell apart too fast/Wasps love sugar, built a hive in the raft/That was never finished/Left weathered in the rain/The upstairs neighbors clogged up the drain/And, poof, like that, all the summer’s gone/Chalk one up to another year gone.”
The new album IS melancholy. But it also expresses yearning. And, at the same time, in its embrace of longing and in its detail, it affirms life. It is poetry, it is the blues, it is jazz, it is Americana, and it is hip hop, stripped to its essence: the words of an artist who is a master of his craft, accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar.
The Gentle Fall arrives on Friday.
Serengeti told Backseat Mafia that “I always wanted to do a project, just like this, just like guitar, but not your campfire guitar. You know that trope, the frat brothers and that one guy.”
In the movie Animal House, John Belushi comes across the singer Stephen Bishop in the hallway of the fraternity house, playing and singing “The Riddle Song” with extravagant emotion. Belushi takes Bishop’s guitar and smashes it against a wall. It’s an iconic scene from the film, that perhaps inspired the Illinois-based rapper.
Serengeti said he conceived of the album as a “mixture of two genres, where the guy’s strumming away, and somebody starts to rap, and everyone is like, wow, look at him, he’s rapping.” But he wanted to keep it simple. “I didn’t really want to add to it. That’s the danger zone when you start to add things, like strings. You could add drums, but it’s very tricky. You don’t want it to get overblown.”
The phrase “gentle fall” is referenced in the first song on the album, “Richard Dreyfus.” Does it have a bigger meaning or significance to the album or its theme?
Serengeti told Backseat Mafia that “it can mean fall outside, or it can mean fall from grace. A gentle fall out of love, a gentle fall into love. My man Stunt Rock did the cover and I didn’t even have a name for it yet. He sent me the cover and it said that. I was thinking about naming it something different but when I saw that, you know what, that’s fine, ‘gentle fall’.” (Editor’s note: Stunt Rock also did the cover for Ajai.)
Backseat Mafia asked Serengeti about his writing process and about how he creates the characters that inhabit his songs. Years ago, a long commute to work on the Chicago L instilled in him the ability to jot down notes and let inspiration flow through him, until ideas begin to click.
Serengeti said “I get ideas and I write them down. Your mind will just, sort of work things out on your own, if you’re willing to write it down. It’s fun to do and it’s also cathartic. When I used to commute, I would write so much. I had so much time on the train. When I worked on trucks, I would write everything on receipts. It’s a gas to write all this down, to live in [this] world [the world of his characters], it’s just like an escape.”
On the album Ajai, two of Serengeti’s most well known characters, Ajai and Kenny Dennis meet in the latter part of the record. Was this intentional?
Serengeti told Backseat Mafia that, “it wasn’t part of the plan, it just happened. Just through the process of doing it, it evolved. But when I sat down to do it, I didn’t sit down to do [that], if [this] makes any sense. But [the meeting] opens Kenny up to the modern world because everything stopped for Kenny when Jules died. Kenny was locked in the world of 1993, because that was the year when Jules died.” [Editor’s note: Jules is Kenny’s wife.]
Serengeti did most of the work on Ajai in his home. “I just really dug into it from the pad. It felt great to do it right here. Other projects, I might go somewhere for a week and do all this stuff from scratch. With Ajai, it was much calmer. Just work on it, in my crib, and record it. It was so much fun.”
His thoughts on the use of the n-word in rap? “I definitely like to rap without saying n-bombs because rap is dominated by that shit. It’s n-bomb this and n-bomb that, but I’m too sensitive and it’s hard to enjoy.”
Finally, Serengeti wanted to clear up something about one of his most enduring and popular characters, Kenny Dennis. There’s a misconception about Dennis, Serengeti told Backseat Mafia. “One thing that always gets to me is, it’s always gets written like Kenny is Polish. That’s far from the truth. I wanted this thing to be about a person. He’s not about me feigning like I’m a Polish guy.”
Serengeti points to a bigger problem that’s true of the music industry, and American society at large, too: the need to label, categorize or define someone based on some generic likes or dislikes, or other, seemingly neutral, characteristics. Serengeti told Backseat Mafia that some people assume if Kenny Dennis likes the actor Tom Berringer, (his second favorite, after Brian Dennehy) then Dennis must be white, a faulty assumption, grounded in subtle biases, baked into many of our brains.
The Gentle Fall drops just in time for fall, and Serengeti has several more projects on the way soon, including some surprises.
Photo of Serengeti and the album cover for The Gentle Fall are courtesy of Serengeti.
Connect with Serengeti on Bandcamp: