The last time we heard from Serengeti, on the early 2007 release Noticeably Negro, he was — as is his habit — on some other sh*t. That is, he makes records no other artist would make — nope, not Del the Funkee Homosapien or Kool Keith or even Digital Underground, our usual suspects when it comes to strange tunes. Straightforward verse-hook-verse rap with soul loops and catchy choruses? I don’t doubt he could do that, but that’s really not what Serengeti is all about. Rather, he plays fast and loose with the strictures of rap’s stylistic canon and his subject matter ranges from questions of skin color (“Noticeably Negro”) to fictional musical plots with various character angles (check the Dennehy album). Noticeably Negro parlayed Serengeti’s penchant for the lo-fi and the crunchy into chewy bits of noise and knowledge. The experiments there were solid, as usual, though not (to me) wholly satisfying.
Well, Serengeti’s back again with Don’t Give Up and, to restate one of the biggest clichés in hip-hop, ain’t a damn thing changed. Serengeti’s still on that other sh*t. He’s still cranking out head tilting, step-back-and-squint records, and still dropping brain teasing poetry that sneaks through the logic police of your conscious mind until you say, “I-I-I think I get it … sort of … but I can’t quite explain it to you.” It’s like one of those optical illusions in which the image becomes clearer as you move away and relax the focus of your vision: abstract, yet methodical.
For Don’t Give Up, Serengeti joined forces with another innovator, Polyphonic, known for his highly regarded 2005 release, Abstract Data Ark. The synergy between the two is quite impressive and they really ought to consider doing more projects together. Serengeti retains his love for lyrical abstraction while working within Polyphonic’s spacious, accessible soundscapes. Where Noticeably Negro was gritty, grimy hip-hop with no chaser, Don’t Give Up is softer around the edges, like the musical version of a vintage sepia-toned photograph. The mood is mellow, tender even, as Serengeti flips forlorn lines about being broken-hearted (“The last relationship f*cked me up”) and isolated (“I made my own world / Full of booze, pills, and girls”), wrapped in the solace of music (“This melody’s my bodyguard”) in all of its glorious strings, swirls, buzzers, and whistles.
The album begins at “Eleven” (the song, not the time of day). Birds are chirping amid the trickle of running water, and then Polyphonic’s electro-Caribbean tempo kicks in, creating a battle of opposites. On the surface, Don’t Give Up operates comfortably as an electronic album, layered with all sorts of deliciously weird noises in the background. More impressive, though, is how familiar — and dare I say “traditional” — song and musical structures reside beneath the layers. The sheer diversity of the music is a bonus: the Caribbean cadence I mentioned earlier in “Eleven”, as well as the folksy “Slew of Things Differently”, the waltz of “Lately I Haven’t Been Feeling Well”, the rave party jam of “Waste of Time”, the jazz-based rap of “2 Times 2”, the oh so gangsta beat of “Rambo”, and an orchestral arrangement of synthesizers in “Don’t Fear the Mimes”. It’s not technology for the sake of technology, either. If a song requires ear-aching screeches and distortion, so be it. If a song needs a real deal cello, that’s what it gets.
Please note that Don’t Give Up may not appeal to everyone. I know this is true of music in general, and hardly a startling revelation at that, but it’s worth noting in this case. I’m not gonna lie to you — this sucker is weird. It is. But it’s a good weird, noisy and then quiet, organic while also artificial, melodramatic and moody (especially when Serengeti tests his singing chops and, maybe, your patience), but it’s also painstakingly detailed and marvelous and all kinds of pretty. There’s been a lot of talk this year about El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and how the sound is dense and the lyrics are difficult to crack. El-P’s album is excellent, no doubt about it, and I can see why some of us find it challenging, but Don’t Give Up is at least as lyrically and musically difficult, albeit without El-P’s phat beats to help move things along.
But Don’t Give Up is also rewarding, perhaps not as immediately gratifying as I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, but intriguing nevertheless. Don’t Give Up is a work of art, actually, that stacks up best as an album — a real album and not simply a collection of songs. It’s also a grower, the type of record that yields more as you peel the layers back with each listen (“Hey, I didn’t notice that woman screaming in “Praha” the first time!”). Listen to it all the way through a couple of times without skipping anything and, if possible, without interruption. If you don’t dig it, give it some time and try again. If you still can’t take it, that’s cool, I’ll understand. At least you gave it a shot. Music this interesting deserves such consideration from time to time.