Untangling RATKING: Wiki comes into his own as a solo artistby Gary Sullivan
“There are still other made-up countries / Where we can hide forever / Wasted with eternal desire and sadness”
—John Ashbery, “Hop o’ My Thumb,” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
“Made my own nation out imagination / Imagine making everything you wanted out of patience / All while blunted, drinking, drunken, wasted”
—Wiki, “Leppy Coqui,” No Mountains in Manhattan
On August 25, twenty-three-year-old rapper Wiki, the most conspicuous third of New York hip-hop trio RATKING, released his first official full-length solo album, No Mountains in Manhattan. The 16-track download from XL Recordings features cameos and production from an array of peers and elders, including Ghostface Killah, beatmaker and high school chum Tony Seltzer, Earl Sweatshirt (as randomblackdude), and a dozen others. RATKING’s own Sporting Life provides the bass- and synth-heavy scaffolding for “Chinatown Swing” and shares production credits with Dadras on “Pandora’s Box,” a duet with Evy Jane. It’s Wiki’s third extra-RATKING project, not counting cameos and collaborative orphans, and his best to date.
Born Patrick Morales on the Upper West Side to Irish-American and Puerto Rican parents, Wiki has described his background as “upper middle class” and says he got his start writing lines while on a grammar-school ski trip. He was later encouraged by a couple of his Bronx-born schoolteachers to dig deep into hip-hop’s history. In addition to genre favorites like Nas, Biggie, Cam’ron, and Buckshot, his teen music crushes included hardcore and no wave.
Wiki’s voice is a bracingly high nasal rasp, and although he is often compared to Eminem, his flow is more off-kilter and associative. He made a quick local name for himself as an up-and-coming teen rapper, and in 2011 he co-founded RATKING with childhood friend Hakeem “Hak” Lewis and producer Eric “Sporting Life” Adiele. (Two other producers, Racerra and Ramon, were each individually involved with the group up through 2014.) RATKING’s goal was simple, if lofty: to reinvent New York hip-hop for the 21st century.
In 2012 the trio plus Ramon reworked and expanded Wiki’s 2011 mixtape, Wiki93, going for what Sporting Life described as a mixture of the Wu-Tang Clan and punk duo Suicide. It’s sonically rich and confidently aggressive, but it’s an ultimately unfocused project. The strongest track, the shapeshifting, super-amped “Comic,” is also the one jam not on Wiki’s original. The EP garnered raves in FACT Magazine and The New York Times, noting the gritty production and skilled, credible lyrics true to the city’s present reality. Wiki, the youngest of the three, wasn’t even twenty.
In 2014, the trio released the full-length vinyl LP So It Goes on XL Recordings imprint HXC, accompanied by a series of low-budget but artful videos (those new to the band may want to first peep the brilliant Ari Marcopoulos–directed “Snow Beach”). The album’s title was a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the gateway drug into all manner of speculative and experimental writing. The first track, “*,” a combination origin story and mission statement, opens with a brief monologue by a friend of the group (“the average rapper right now, it’s a whole different generation”) that firmly positions RATKING in the present. From there it’s a wild, gleefully aggressive, noise-fueled ride from Harlem down the West Side Highway to Canal, and off to the beaches of the outer boroughs.
The response from the press was scattershot. A seemingly infinite array of contemporaries and precursors were name-checked in an attempt locate and describe RATKING’s sound, energy, and flow, including Aesop Rock (and other Definitive Jux artists), the Beastie Boys, clipping, Death Grips, Dipset, Flatbush Zombies, grime, 1990s New York hip hop (if that’s reducible to a thing), ODB, Three 6 Mafia, and Yelawolf.
It may seem absurd to add to that pile-up. But there are two New York crews rarely mentioned that feel especially akin to RATKING. The first is late 1980s Bomb Squad, echoes of which one can’t help but note in Sporting Life’s methodically multi-layered, cacophonous-on-first-impression beats, some of them sourced from degraded cassettes and VHS tapes, and later heavily manipulated. The second is another trio: Das Racist. While New York boasts a whole tradition of left-field hip-hop, Heems and Kool A.D.’s humorously dark, twisty, reference-soaked lines, thoroughly rooted in present-day NYC, feel like an obvious precursor, if not a direct influence.
Like Das Racist, RATKING quickly caught the attention of critics, burned (mostly) brilliantly through three collective projects, and then abruptly self-destructed. The year following So It Goes, the group released a free, torrent-only EP, 700-Fill, which, while hardly a dud, felt like something of an afterthought. Later in 2015, Sporting Life dropped 55 5’s, an especially juicy collection of instrumental tacks on limited cassette release, and Wiki put out the solo mixtape Lil Me via his own Letter Racer website. The writing was on the wall.
In early summer of 2016, Hak made it official: he released his own solo project, the atmospheric album June, and announced his departure from the group, saying he didn’t feel he was being treated nicely. He wished his former bandmates well, and Wiki assured listeners that RATKING would continue as a duo. Meanwhile, Sporting Life seems to have launched a career of his own, complete with already jam-packed Bandcamp page (sportinglife.bandcamp.com). Wiki, too, has been busy, teaming up with Your Old Droog on the early 2017 EP What Happened to Fire, and finally delivering No Mountains in Manhattan.
No Mountains is surprisingly focused and fluid, despite the year and a half it took the rapper and his collaborators to complete. The title comes from a line in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and is the first of the project’s many intentionally conflicting messages that charge its atmosphere with a poetic sense of tension. There are, after all, mountains in Manhattan, just as there are everywhere, in the form of obstacles and challenges to overcome. Wiki attempts to surmount several on No Mountains, including identity, ego, volatile relationships, and addiction.
There’s a narrative running through the project, somewhere in between the casual “I do this I do that” of Frank O’Hara and the more formal “unstuck in time” replaying of Billy Pilgrim’s life in Slaughterhouse-Five. While not an outright pilgrim’s progress, there’s enough propulsion to buoy the rich lyric details above mere rhyme.
Sonically, from what sounds like a busking Andean zampoña that opens and flutters throughout the first track, “Islander,” to the lounge-y piano, drums, bass, and guitar that shuffle and glitch around the rapper’s vulnerable braggadocio on “Leppy Coqui,” the album’s last, the production chafes up against Wiki’s flow, like bodies jostled together in an overcrowded train.
RATKING this is not, but it’s just as rewarding, less hazy, brighter in spots, and with a more generous palette, though far from an attempt to sell out (“Don’t do it for top ten or radio / Hope ‘fore I drop dead, I save my soul,” he spits in the funky pop contender “Mayor”). Wiki’s disarming sense of humor, his playfulness with words and multi-directional referencing, and the sheer variety of ingenious production on these tracks, give No Mountains the feeling of a great, late summer read.