Review Summary: ya like em, ya bang em
Chicago, the Windy City. I’d like to think I have some degree of personal attachment to it. After all, a good portion of my family lives there and I’ve visited them enough to have decent understanding of the city and the suburbs around it. I even remember standing on the very top level of the Sears Tower (when it was still called the Sears Tower) and ***ting my pants as I looked down and saw a crowd of people on the street that were literally the size of ants. I remember the sight of Lake Michigan on what could’ve been the foggiest day in history, and the underwhelming sensation that came over me when I walked into Wrigley Field for the first time and realized this long storied slice of baseball history was not much bigger than my high school’s baseball field. I also distinctly remember how flat the whole area is; no hills, no incline, no anything. Besides for that, I know absolute *** about Chicago. Boston is my home, and aside for the fact our baseball teams had the bad luck of being cursed at some point in their history and both share teams with "sox" in their names, there is very little Chicagoans and us Bostonians can relate to.
Enter Kenny Dennis, the alter ego of Chicago indie rapper Serengeti. My first exposure to the Kenny Dennis character and Serengeti in general was the song “Don’t Blame Steve” from 2012’s Kenny Dennis EP. The song was an oddball slice of New York style boom-bap about the infamous Steve Bartman incident in 2003. Riddled with esoteric references to Chicago sports history and rapped in a heavily accented stream of consciousness flow, the song established the Kenny Dennis character as a man of the people, a Chicago sports fanatic accepting the ill fate of his cursed franchise and not trying to bestow that blame upon one ordinary guy who found himself in a tense and sticky situation.
The Kenny Dennis character is best understood with a little background information: he’s a 50 year old, mustachioed, former rapper who happened to have a major feud with Shaq in the late 90’s and holds a grudge against him to this day. Shaq’s crime? He insulted Kenny’s mustache. Kenny’s interests and favorite things include sausages, hanging with pals, his wife, softball, Brian Dennehy movies, and Chicago sports; the guy lives for Da Bears and the golden days of Ditka. He also apparently has a long, amiable history with Anders Holm from Workaholics, who narrates 4 tracks on here. Try absorbing all of that and you still won’t have the clearest picture of who this character is. Even after listening to the EP and the LP multiple times I have yet to get all the intricacies of Kenny Dennis down.
The album is dense, both lyrically and thematically; there is always something new to discover about Kenny Dennis upon repeated listens. Maybe you didn’t catch it the first time but “Directions” is about some random dude challenging Kenny to a 5k race through the suburbs. Kenny beats the guy by 10 blocks and brags about being able to jog a mile in 4:14. On “Punks”, Dennis goes into a somber spoken word rant against wrestlers he doesn’t like and the punk criminals in his neighborhood. The lyrical topics are very varied; part social commentary, part rant, part observation, part experience. We get an even more vivid picture of him on the Anders skits. In “Laser Tag”, Ders recounts his first encounter with Kenny inside a Sharper Image gift store. Young Ders really wants this laser tag kit he found but cannot afford it. Sure enough, Kenny Dennis, fresh off an argument with the clerk, buys him the laser tag set and gives him his phone number. Later skit “Fireworks” details how an older Anders manages to evade arrest simply because he had the luck bumping a rare Kenny Dennis tape in the car as the cop pulled him over. “Kenny ***ing Dennis?” says the cop in wonder and appreciation as he lets Anders drive away. It is this juxtaposition of Kenny as some totally normal middle aged guy yet at the same time larger than life figure that makes this LP such a thrill to listen to.
The production is handled by producer Odd Nosdam, who blankets Kenny’s rants and observations with boom bap drums and jazzy textures. It is a meat and potatoes approach to beatmaking that fits Dennis’ everyman personality like a glove. The dusty, crackling instrumental of “Kenny and Jueles” is probably the finest on here and provides a beautiful backdrop to Serengeti’s most powerful lyrical performance on the record. Kenny highlights the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife Jueles in a softer, introspective voice quite different from the loud barking of tracks like “Bang Em” and “West of Western”. Kenny is such a powerful, relatable character because he is only human underneath his larger than life personality. At times it is hard to forget he is a figment of imagination. He is a lover of common people and community, lamenting escalating crime rates and crumbling school systems and encouraging a “my house is your house” relationship with his neighborhood in closer “Flows”. He is willing to make a neighborhood kid’s day by buying him a toy, and defend the poor bastard who happened to stick his hand out to catch a foul ball at the wrong time. And boy does he love his sports. As grateful as I am for living in a city where my baseball team has long broken their curse and that my football team’s quarterback is not named Jay Cutler, I’m pretty pissed that we don’t have a Kenny Dennis of our own.
Lover of friends of family, world’s number one Brian Dennehy fan, with a moustache the size of Mike Ditka’s forehead…Kenny Dennis.
Kenny and Jueles