By The Reverend Wayne Coomers

“I had five feet of room to move in up there,” Serengeti explained to me with contained disconsolation after his opening stint for Why? at The Blue Note last night in Columbia, Missouri. I’m not sure I actually asked a question—I think he read the concern on my face. But “room” had actually been an obstacle beyond its definition as concrete performance space; the Chicago indie-MC’s sui generis attack (admittedly not the best choice of nouns, as we shall see) didn’t fit conveniently into the expectations of even the heads in the audience, to say nothing of those of the literal busloads of seeming nubiles that were emptied into the club a half-hour before the show, or of the tire-kicking college kids fresh off their first week of class, ready to bounce to some massive, catchy beats and respond sheep-like to signal-call chorus tropes. For an artist who relies on subtleties for successful communication and gives his fans credit for intelligence and curiosity, it was not a promising scenario, but to his credit, he didn’t pander. Still, it was not enough.

Listening to his new C.A.R. (Anticon) the morning before the show, I asked myself, “How will this translate to the stage?” On a verbal level, the record is consistently surprising, inventive, and quirky, and very light on repetition, one reason I’ve admired the guy for many years. Structurally, it doesn’t have the coherence of his near-concept records Dennehy, Conversations with Kenny, the soon-to-be-completed trilogy of Friday/Saturday/Sunday Night, and even his infamous ’93 basement tape There’s a Situation on the Home Front (under The Grimm Teachaz moniker), but it does sport the fascinating persona-play for which Serengeti’s become famous, most intriguingly on “Geti Life,” where he tempts the listener toward dangerous autobiographical interp. The music, like C.A.R.’s predecessors Family and Friends (2011) and the s/s/s collab-EP Beak and Claw, eschews fat hooks and lock-step arrangements to better facilitate the artist’s free-associative talents. And it’s moody, a trait it shares with the lyrics. It’s likely I am inflating the still-impressive achievement of a writer who may just be an eagle-eyed observer of the milieu in which he travels, and who gets off on the pleasure of an off-the-wall rhyme, left-field reference, or accidentally revelatory non sequitur, but I am going to take a leap and say this: Serengeti powerfully captures the richly varied but relentlessly complicated lives, the dim hopes and thwarted dreams of a generation that’s been hammered flat by a tough decade. He doesn’t always do this by narrative—often, his songs sound like notebook pages—and he delightfully distracts himself and his audience with inventions like Kenny Dennis. However, thanks to his interest in situations we all recognize—a friend in rehab, a relative trying and failing to open a business, a bleak reunion between deadbeat dad and kid—and his skill of matching them to soundscapes, even those notebook pages signify like hell. It really is all about reality. And that reality, as vivid as the specifics sometimes are, is pretty grey. And grey, even painted with a comic brush, is hard to sell on Friday night.

Serengeti indeed had his work cut out for him. Hemmed in by the ocean of Why?’s equipment, and with DJ Tony Trimm’s table taking up half of the remaining space, he had two choices: stand and deliver, or sit and deliver. He did a little of both, sometimes giving the performance the feel of a reading, rather than a show. An audience open to readings would have helped, but the MC’s understated virtues and unassuming appearance (he could have been mistaken for a ticket-taker) doomed him with the medium-sized crowd, a member of which facetiously yelling “One more!” after his first song. Only the satirical “California” generated a modicum of interest, if only for its title chant-along, which was first seized upon then dropped, as if the winking of the next line, “Invent yourself!” was received as an insult. After even the irresistible “Dennehy” failed to rouse anyone other than the faithful but few sprinkled throughout, he seemed to close up shop early, without ceremony. Was it a case of a performer not making quick adjustments? Or was the audience’s torpor a by-product of live rap, which has always had a hard time working as well or better on stage than it does when punched out in a studio lab? Were pearls laid out to swine, or had the inevitable road episode of wrong place, wrong time, wrong people manifested itself? Even if, in reality, the truth was a little of all of the above—I shade toward the pigs and jewelry, myself—it was difficult (angering, troubling, saddening) to see one of the country’s most distinctive hip hop practitioners, one who isn’t selling a capitalist fantasy, the new minstrelsy (not so new by now, right?), or sexual exploitation, one whose work is accessible in numerous ways (not the least of which is the punk-rock-tested, “Hey, I can do this!” factor) to the youngest in his audience, one who was actually out on the floor before the show selling his own merch and genially chatting with concertgoers, be subjected to incurious indifference and even derision. It was enough, I’m sure, to make an adventurous rhymewriter think twice about performing at all (which he must do to make any money at all), and more than enough to make an adventurous concertgoer think dark thoughts about “the crowd” (which he must join at some point for society to grow, if he gives a damn). I just hope that Serengeti ends up a prophet, that as times get tougher and lies have more time to die, audiences will end up lionizing his artistic progeny. One way or the other, I doubt I’ll be alive to see it.