Serengeti, Ajai Credit: Courtesy the Artist

In the mid-2000s, local rapper Serengeti imagined rapping as a character named Kenny Dennis, a 50-something with a thick mustache and an even thicker Chicago accent. Ever since Kenny made his debut on the 2006 single “Dennehy,” he’s become the protagonist of a sprawling universe spread out among a panoply of albums, some credited to Serengeti and others supposedly made by figures in Kenny’s fictitious universe. In 2010, for example, Serengeti dropped There’s a Situation on the Homefront by Kenny’s golden-age group, Tha Grimm Teachaz, who were supposedly all set to release music on Jive during their early-90s heyday, only to have their recordings shelved after they beefed with Shaq at a label showcase. Thankfully, Kenny’s younger brother, Tanya, rediscovered the Homefront tapes nearly two decades later. Chopped Herring, a very real UK archival label that specializes in reissuing obscure hip-hop, is one of several imprints that played along with Serengeti to release Tha Grimm Teachaz material as a “reissue” in the 2010s, which demonstrates the lengths to which he’s gone to make Kenny’s world feel as genuine as our own. In 2018, Serengeti decided to wrap up Kenny’s story with 6e, in which the everyman Chicagoan mourned the loss of his wife, Jueles (she has an album too: 2017’s Butterflies). But Kenny wasn’t done with Serengeti. Last fall the Bulls commissioned Serengeti to make a remix of “Dennehy,” and just before Governor Pritzker issued the shelter-in-place order in March, Serengeti performed the song during halftime at a Bulls home game. Then one week into self-isolation, Serengeti wrote and recorded an epilogue to Kenny’s story, Ajai (released on his own Cohn Corporation label). Produced entirely by Los Angeles beat maker Kenny Segal, the album is front-loaded with densely detailed tales about a new character, the titular Ajai, a maladjusted hypebeast whose single-minded fashion addiction colors every facet of his life. Serengeti’s reflective performances and comforting vocals lend his immersive storytelling real-life gravitas and impart nuance to scenarios that otherwise might just feel sad. Though Ajai and Kenny Dennis are basically strangers, they exist in a world Serengeti has spent nearly 15 years animating down to the last particular. Near the end of the album, when Kenny receives some clothes from Ajai, the gesture carries the weight of Serengeti’s long songwriting journey—practically a lifetime—even though the fleeting moment is mostly transactional. Ajai makes me even more excited to see where Serengeti goes next with his idiosyncratic narrative raps.   v