Late last month the New York Times published a piece on the rise of “NPR Voice,” a peculiar speech pattern that’s ballooned on the radio and podcasts and is characterized by an informal and slightly conversational style. Writing about its pregnant pauses and colloquialisms, Teddy Wayne noted the curious nature of a style of radio storytelling that’s meant to appear authentically casual: “The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.”
Wayne’s Times article came to mind while I listened to the closing track of You Can’t Run From the Rhythm, an album that local rapper Serengeti and comedic actor Anders Holm released under the name Perfecto last week without any prior warning. The first half of the five-track release pulses with the glistening rush of early-90s pop acts C&C Music Factory and Technotronic. Holm manages to hold down his part of each track, admirably and awkwardly rapping a tongue-twisting verse that includes the word “bass” with great frequency on “Close Your Eyes.” An Evanston native who plays one of the three twentysomethings who waste their days goofing off at their dead-end call-center gig on Comedy Central’s Workaholics, Holm doesn’t have the best flow around. In fact, there are at least a couple Workaholics episodes in which Holm’s character, also named Anders (or Ders) busts out bars that don’t nearly live up to his delusional understanding of his skills.
But Holm’s performance on You Can’t Run From the Rhythm makes the tracks even more buoyant. Same with the more technically proficient Serengeti, who raps in character as Kenny Dennis, the fiftysomething blue-collar MC who could’ve been something in the 90s—that is, in the alternative universe Serengeti’s built for Kenny in a series of fascinating albums, EPs, and singles.
“The Labrador,” the final track on You Can’t Run From the Rhythm, further develops the world around Kenny Dennis. It’s not a traditional song as much as it’s 17 minutes of warm synths soundtracking the lengthy backstory of Perfecto’s third member, a man from Bolingbrook named DJ Rafal. The producer dates his entrance into the group to 1999, when a small carton factory hired him on to prevent the security of its tiny computer system from the threat of Y2K. Within the comforts of a job that affords the future Perfecto producer and DJ nothing but free time he begins to write a novel, The Labrador, and develops more than 6,000 pages in close to a decade before the company finds out, fires him, and sues him. In an effort to make quick cash he produces a handful of tracks and manages to sell them to . . . Kenny Dennis.
That’s the snapshot, but to fully engage with You Can’t Run From the Rhythm you have to listen to the entirety of “The Labrador.” Like many podcasts and radio programs these days DJ Rafal wastes no time drawing you into an elaborate, consuming story, and his bated breath and each stumble not only add a richness to his story but a sense of authenticity as well. The story is, of course, made up, and another example of the love and attention to detail Serengeti gives not only to Kenny Dennis but the world in which he exists. It’s a world almost exactly like the one we live in, but one in which Kenny is a person with a history, a family tree, and a network of friends and family rather than a character Serengeti dreamed up.
“The Labrador,” which mimics a form of storytelling that fabricates realism, gives Kenny more flesh and blood. It makes the absurd twists and turns of Kenny’s story feel more real because of the sense of import and ensuing detail provided by everyone Serengeti pulls into his project. “The Labrador” is not just a new addition to Kenny’s voluminous story, which Holm has been involved in since 2013’s Kenny Dennis LP, but an interlocking piece. On last year’s Kenny Dennis LP III Holm takes us through a brief musical collaboration he did with Kenny, playing malls, rec centers, and battles of the bands around the midwest. The name of the project? Perfecto.
“It wasn’t his, like, traditional hip-hop gritty griminess,” Holm says early in Kenny Dennis LP III, describing the tracks Kenny got for their burgeoning musical partnership. “It was like C&C Music Factory, Technotronic, Snap freestyle music from, like, B96’s 90s days.” At the end of the track you can hear Serengeti as Kenny shouting, “Those beats cost me a lot of money!” The name of the song is “Perfecto.” With the new You Can’t Run From the Rhythm Serengeti’s added more dots to the pointillist landscape of Kenny’s world. The album’s release was described as a surprise—it came out without any publicity campaigns. But anyone keeping track of Serengeti’s work could’ve known something like You Can’t Run From the Rhythm was on the horizon.