Author: Ben Farrell
Morales, better known by his stage name Wiki, was the frontman and musical driving force behind New York City rap trio Ratking. The group, whose existence spanned roughly four years, consisted of Wiki, producer Sporting Life, and Hak, whose poignant vocals give Ratking’s music a haunting and at times melancholic element.
Their debut full-length LP, So It Goes, dropped almost exactly five years ago. In the half decade since then, the group split up, each member has pursuing their own solo career with varying degrees of success. On this record, Wiki and Hak, who were only 20 years old at the time, made up the vocal component of Ratking. With the assistance of producer Sporting Life, who was ten years their senior, the trio took on a great musical challenge: to create an honest, contemporary, and innovative take on the much-belabored archetype of New York City rap.
I’m revisiting this album now because, in the five years since its release, rap has skyrocketed in national popularity. Artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Sheck Wes, and even Lil Nas X continue to top the charts, redefining the genres of both rap and pop simultaneously.An unfortunate absence in this recent growth has been a resurgence of the distinctively New York sound (there have been antiquated attempts to replicate the lyrical success of rapper like Mobb Deep and The Wutang Clan, but they fall flat and feel entirely un-innovative). Rappers like YG, Nipsey Hussle, Kendrick Lamar, and Schoolboy Q have managed to adopt, update, and create new styles of Los Angeles rap in a way that hasn’t happened in New York. Ratking, in my opinion, are the only group that has managed to pay mind to New York’s canon, while adding in their own uniqu
On “Snow Beach,” a single off of So It Goes, Wiki laments the (still continuing) rapid expansion of the New York University campus across downtown New York as a “cancer, infecting the apple in its heart.” The line that immediately follows this one poses a much simpler question, “Why’d You Make A Campus out the Park.” This ability to both poeticize and paint a surprisingly realistic picture of the gentrifying sprawl gives the music a double-edged quality. Wiki occupies the role of grand advocate, while also establishing his credibility as a bastion of authenticity in the rapidly changing landscape of New York City. People feel the need to cling on to the much-lauded and perhaps tired-out image of New York as it was in Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy, and Wiki provides this grunge and grit.
“Wanna hear an epic tale? It’s Wiki Virgil!” he proclaims in “Snow Beach,” his frenetic and sour vocals dancing over Sporting Life’s murky re-tooled boom bap. Wiki takes a humorous approach to his own image, making sure the listener doesn’t attribute his bard-like tendencies to the “Trojan in my wallet” rather than Wiki’s own story-telling abilities. He wants the listener to understand that this isn’t an image. It’s his life.
So It Goes hits its highest heights when Wiki and Hak turn their artistic attention inward. My personal favorite track on the album, “Eat,” chronicles Wiki’s struggle with OxyContin addiction. As the song begins, you’re greeted by Sporting Life’s trademark murky production style, a uniting factor throughout the album. Hak’s vocals float mystically over the creaking, shimmering rhythms, preaching a sermon that nobody other than the preacher himself can fully comprehend.
“Swelled up and I am blue, purple from bruises, just a few couple several rusty screws loose” he drones. Here, Hak sets the table for introspection. Though he was barely out of his teen years, the exhaustion in his voice and lyrics are notable. He seems to be telling us the story of a life already lead. Through his tone and timbre, Hak forces us to see that he is older than his 20 years would suggest. ”Not one for great speeches but I think I’ll say, Unsown my mouth with words decayed, Knees sore walk off the pain, poets die and poems stray.” Though we cannot know exactly what Hak is referring to, his impressionistic lyrics construct a narrative space is in some senses legendary and grandiose, and in others extremely real.
Wiki’s verse begins at the song’s minute and a half mark. The contrast with Hak’s ethereal vocals is stark, signaling a change in the scope of the narrative approach. Wiki’s true-to-life verse is short and its vulnerability allows us to delve deeper into the world which Hak and Sporting life have constructed. He extolls us with pitchy rhymes, storying in a concise fashion his struggle with oxycontin addiction.
The most gut-wrenching lines of his verse come as Wiki pleads with his guidance counselor not to tell his father about his addiction. “Doctor Degraff, please don’t call up my dad, tell him all the possible paths, I should’ve took, I would’ve took.” Wiki’s distraught tone adds a clear cathartic weight to his plea, as if we were in the counselor’s office sitting next to him. We feel the shame and regret of a teenager battling something completely out of their own control.
Musical and narrative honesty are this album’s X Factor, which at its best is a cohesive and seemingly true-to-life musical tapestry. In the five years since the album’s release, I haven’t stopped listening. I can’t seem to escape the draw of its murky, gritty appeal. It appeals to my sensibilities as native New Yorker (albeit an extremely soft one), because of its contemporary and nuanced approach current state of the city. It’s sonic profile, from the accents of Hak and Sport, to the industrial and at times jumbled production of sporting life, seems to emulate the never ending stream of activity synonymous in my mind with the isle of Manhattan.
The topics of gentrification, a changing city landscape, and opioid addiction, three substantive driving forces behind this creative pursuit, have become more relevant since 2014 in New York and elsewhere across the country. The innate social consciousness of this music and its acceptance of the changing world in which it was created make it a timeless album.
This timelessness is not restricted to its subject matter. The unique production style adopted by sporting life, so integral to the unique musical approach Ratking takes, has become extremely popular. On Earl Sweatshirt’s past two LP’s (the first of which includes a Wiki feature) he has experimented with the kind of distortion and sound-layering that I’ve come to associate with this record.
But the thing that truly draws me into Raking’s music is the feeling that, every time I listen, I am transported into their world. In my eyes, the search for and creation of one’s own subjective truth is a signifier of great art, and Ratking have truly managed to achieve this feat.
I truly see this record as a lost gem of the rap world. Though it garnered only moderate commercial success and critical acclaim, I’m almost certain that in the future it will be lauded as one of the great musical achievements of the 2010s. The career arc of the group, which began so wonderfully, ended abruptly. With only one full length record to their name, it’s difficult to contextualize So It Goes. What could have been a dynasty has become in 2019 a one-off anomaly. Maybe in another half decade, the members will reunite for another record. Though Ratking’s journey has ended for now, Hak, Wiki, Sporting Life, and everyone else in the city of New York keep on moving.