Paddle Royal: Polyphonic and Serengeti lead a hip-hop free-for-all.

As the cliché goes, the Velvet Underground didn’t have many fans, but each one started a rock band. Reconfigured for Chicago rapper Serengeti, you could say that each member of his small fan base is a music critic. Whenever he releases an album—which happens two or three times a year—bloggers and obscure-music-magazine writers scramble to heap praise on it. When he plays shows, those in attendance know his unreleased songs by heart because they already have review copies. And then there are his lyrics, which reference the likes of Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Klonopin, Tom Berenger, and ColecoVision. It appeals to pop-culture-obsessed writers, sure. The average trees-and-D’s hip-hop fan, though? Not so much. But perhaps those fans should try Serengeti’s devastating new album, Dont Give Up. Its melodies—crafted by DJ Polyphonic, another Chicagoan—run from emo twee to minimalist art rock to electronica. Minor-chord keys and cello wither and bloom without warning, while the blips, bleeps, and hand claps sound torn from Sufjan Stevens’ or Belle and Sebastian’s charts. Catchy almost in spite of themselves, the songs share a sort of down-but-not-out feel, suggesting introspection without a sense of pity. It’s a step in the right direction for Polyphonic, whose latest solo work, Abstract Data Ark, was impenetrable, even for music critics. It’s also a change of course for Serengeti, who now does more singing than rapping. Those expecting his usual witty anthems will instead find mature discourses on financial insecurity and confused priorities. It’s appropriate territory for the MC, who recently married and had a son: “Now, this relationship’s been going real swell/Thoughts of copulations, even prior to wedding bells/Rather the wedding judge, county clerks and swollen tummies/Get a job speeches cause raps doesn’t give you money,” he sings on “Puppydog Love.” But even at his most serious and morose—“So the last relationship fucked me up/You treated me good, but I beated you up” from the same song—he still makes you giggle with that forced rhyme. Being your favorite rap critic’s favorite rapper isn’t all that useful to Serengeti, aka Dave Cohn. Underground-legend status almost never adds up to $40,000 a year plus benefits—in Serengeti’s case, it just means that he has to log a 9-to-5 at an herbal-medicine store. But all brands of hip-hop fans can get behind this record, which seeks to appeal not to music critics but to anyone who’s ever hurt someone they loved, fucked up their own future, or stared their own mortality in the face.