Serengeti – Family & Friends

January 01, 1970



Serengeti, the Chicago-born, LA-based rapper David Cohn,
inhabits nearly a dozen different personas on his Family & Friends and sheds additional sympathetic light on a
large cast of bystanders. Whether he’s embodying the exhausted bigamist of
“Goddamit” or the wistful young man connecting with his dad through drugs on
“Long Ears” or the washed-up UFC gladiator in “The Whip”, he observes without
judging. Friends & Family is more
like a short-story collection than poetry, though it has its share of arresting


This ability to channel other viewpoints is nothing new for Serengeti.
His best known song, after all, is “Dennehy,” told from the viewpoint of the
Budweiser-swilling, Chicago Bears-loving, Polish-American Kenny, and about as
far removed from a half-black, half-Jewish MC’s orbit as the moons of Pluto. Here,
however, Serengeti seems to dip further into personal experience. “California,” for instance, told from the obtusely cheerful
viewpoint of a recently divorced self-improvement addict, follows Cohn’s own
move to the Golden
State. “Long Ears,” a
multigenerational saga of addiction, neglect and fragile connection, may come,
in part, from the family members’ drug problems that Cohn has talked about in
interviews. There are no panoramic political statements here, but through the
accumulation of details about families in stress and downward mobility, you get
a sense of economic turmoil. “Dwight,” the album’s closer, is particularly
chilling in this regard, moving from a young couple buying a new home to bankruptcy,
the husband stepping over his wife’s sleeping form on the back steps by the end.


Musically, Family
& Friends
has a definite slant towards the indie pop, produced as it
was by Yoni from WHY? and Owen Ashworth (here credited as Advanced Battery
Base, but otherwise known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone). Ashworth’s
signature Casio and drum-machine sound permeates the album.  Even “The Whip,” the album’s stunning
centerpiece, couches its darkness in high piping keyboards and the dry thwack
of programmed snare. Its tale – of a UFC fighter almost making a name for
himself, then gradually fading from view – is gently, empathetically tragic,
the violence at the center of the fighter’s life offset by his love for caged
wrens and the way he lives quietly with his mother. “Goddamit,” the other
highlight, is almost as sympathetic, this time to a man who marries a second,
17-year-old wife and spends the song trying to maintain two lives.


Family & Friends is full of small tragedies, closely observed and beautifully detailed, and told
in a way that makes clear that even the main characters don’t realize how sad
their lives have become. It is leavened, almost contradicted, by the sunniness
of its melodies, the delicacy of its indie pop arrangements. The result is a deeply
humane album, it makes poetry out of the disappointments of daily existence and
narrative out of the mistakes that people make.



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