Paul Thompson blames Moises Alou, cause he can’t blame Steve
“Tell me, what’s your dream job?”
Quit your job; rap like you’re thirty again; wear neon bike shorts; give me my double bacon burger for free; relax, there are over a hundred games left. Kenny Dennis is a terrible life coach. The rapper-turned-everyman, a conjuring of art rap savant Serengeti’s imagination, has been living in limbo. In the near-decade since he created the character, Geti has made Kenny guzzle O’Douls and barbecue rub, pine for better days with his wife Jueles (and/or Horace Grant), threaten Shaq on wax, and make the case for Steve Bartman’s forgiveness. Kenny Dennis is Chicago distilled—a mustachioed buddy guy for whom Bears and brats are paramount. There’s an invented backstory, psychology, even syntax. A forgotten Golden Age also-ran who bats sixth on his softball team but should be third but can’t run well enough on the bad ankle. But what if he could go back?
On KD LP III, Kenny gets his shot at the fame that eluded him in the Grimm Teachaz days. Not really—it’s a tour of shopping centers around the upper Midwest. There are probably a lot of shared motel rooms and venues where the thirty attendees are all texting during the set. But we don’t get into those grim practicalities, because in Kenny’s head, they don’t exist. Look at the itinerary! You never dreamed of doing anything like this, did you?
His reluctant partner is his old buddy Ders (voiced by Workaholics’ Anders Holm), who likens the tour to “a charity for Kenny”. Before they head out on the road—in Kenny’s Aurora, because he only drives stick—they form a new group with ridiculous electro production and a more ridiculous name (“PERFECTO”). Kenny bristles when Ders thinks it’s a joke. It’s not. It’s not funny. These beats are slammin’.
KD LP III is about how we talk ourselves into things: shitty tours, shitty midlife crises, shitty jobs with shitty roofing contractors. More specifically, it’s about how we talk ourselves—and our friends—into reframing those things in our minds. Sometimes, you’re gassing your own ego: As Kenny and Ders weave from Rockford to Quincy to Decatur, Geti lets the titular character believe his own hype. He cuts off Ders’ mic as a “joke”. He refuses to dip into the Teachaz’ presumably deep catalog, favoring the thin, anachronistic Perfecto material. (We don’t get too clear a look at the new stuff, but it probably sounds like Ma$e if Ma$e was white and bitter.) Tensions come to a head when Kenny stops his Aurora in the middle of the freeway, furious with Ders. “I’m more famous than you!”
Or maybe you’re settling, but calling it by a different name. Ders spends the tour alternately annoyed with and happy for Kenny, handling him with kid gloves all the while. Aside from the general sense that it’s nice to reunite with an old friend, Ders’ head is back in Los Angeles, where he’s trying to hack it as an actor. As the meager Midwest run is about to hit its climax—a Joe Simpson-featuring show at the Mall of America in Minneapolis—Ders bails, hoping to land a role as Mr. Drummond in a Diff’rent Strokes prequel. He doesn’t book it. But when we catch up with him later, he tells you he’s fine, holed up in Calabasas and learning parkour ten years too late. He’s doing some contracting, too. You know, just to keep busy.
These are the subtle lies we tell ourselves. You’re the most talented guy on the local circuit. You definitely could have made the NBA if you had gone to JC. But there’s the catch. For all their bluster, the rappers are transparent. You can practically see Kenny lying awake, wondering if he really has what it takes, if he looks like an idiot in bright colors on a tiny stage; Ders is staring at his alarm clock wondering ‘What if?’. So when the latter tells us that after the dust settles, all he can listen to on his iPod is the Perfecto record he made to placate Kenny, it’s heartbreaking.
Serengeti, as always, goes full method actor. Kenny Dennis is a cartoon character, sure, but a starkly empathetic one. Maybe he’s a little obtuse around his family and friends, but he takes in his down-on-his-luck brother, ceding him the garage and even landing him a job as a wrestling referee. And how charming is it that, when the Sox play the Cubs, he just hopes for a good game? The Kenny we met on “Dennehy” was lovable because he derived so much joy from what was in front of him; now that he’s reaching for more, it’s hard not to be on his side.
The writing is less complete thought than fractured inner monologue. On “SHIDOSHI”, Geti lets Kenny’s Bennie-riddled id talk for him; on “BUDDY GUY”, barstool posturing is reduced to its basest elements. KD LP III is as singular work as 2014 has seen—no song is self-contained in theme or narrative. The record is stunning, then, because the plot never works to the detriment of the form. If “DZ GOES ON” doesn’t make sense on its own, it still knocks.
I have seen sad rappers perform sad sets in the Mall of America foyer, right between the Barnes and Noble and the theme park that used to be Camp Snoopy before the Schulz family let the licensing contract lapse. Kenny Dennis never got to, because sometimes you can’t make it all the way back—no matter what you tell yourself. With KD LP III, Serengeti has crafted one of the most incisive and most three-dimensional portraits in the history of the genre. No one gets shot or gets famous, no one goes broke or gets rich. The fights in Aeropostales and Auroras are secondary to the fights Kenny and Ders are waging between their ears. Neither wins, neither loses. Perfecto.