Chicago’s hip-hop scene has seen better days. Kanye is out tweeting about his hatred for khaki shorts, Common has split his time between having hilarious beefs with Drake and making bizarre cameos in romantic comedies and Happy Feet Two, and Lupe Fiasco is still recovering from Lasers, a glossy, over-produced slice of corporate rap that was lukewarm at best. These days, California and New York have reclaimed the crown from the Windy City (So much for watching the throne), and aside from the wacky antics of Detroit native Danny Brown and all-star Minneapolis collective Doomtree, the Midwest has been pretty dead lately.
There’s no better timing, then, for C.A.R., the stellar new LP from Chi-Town rapper Serengeti. In the same way that Killer Mike’s recent masterpiece R.A.P. Music set a new standard for Southern rap, C.A.R. signals new promise for the Chicago sound. Even though the record was crafted in Berkeley at the cottage of key Anticon producer Odd Nosdam, this is no piece of Golden State sunshine. In fact, the beats here are as gloomy and forlorn as an icy gale from Lake Michigan, closer to Trent Reznor than Tupac. In fact, two of the songs on this album are called “Cold” and “Chill.” Beck-ian traces of morose country and stretched-out guitars serve as dusty aural bookends; opener “Greyhound,” an aloof reflection on the difficult reconciliation of action and detachment, serves as a perfect counterpart to the somber finale, “Uncle Traum.”
Nosdam channels the pick-and-choose eclecticism made famous by Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf with plenty of scratches and clever sampling. But as clever as C.A.R.‘s production may be, the real strength is in the spitting. Serengeti is a master at weaving intricate webs with his wordplay—and making it look as easy as brushing his teeth. On “Talk To Me,” he manages to name-drop Bon Iver (twice), Papa Roach and Neneh Cherry—all in different contexts, and in a manner that, for once, doesn’t sound like a rapper trying to pump up his hipster credentials. And over the sparse cymbals of “Go Dancin,” he promises the object of his affections a seemingly infinitesimal list of pleasures—”tapas,” “A puppy/We’ll name him Benjamin,” “Feeding the geese”—with an urgency bordering on pleading that finally explodes in a furious climax. There are no throwaway songs about weed, women or cars here, just 11 separate streams of consciousness, each with subtle lyrical and instrumental nuances. And in this post-Lil-B world, that may be just what Chicago—and the rest of the country—needs.