August 25th was certainly an auspicious day for rap music. The day’s release schedule reads like a who’s-who of the contemporary scene, replete with hype acts and heavyweights alike: Lil Uzi Vert, ASAP Mob, Brockhampton, Action Bronson, and XXXTentacion all released much hyped albums on the same day. One might even be for forgiven for taking the release conflict as a major commercial blunder on the part of lil ol’ Wiki, sure to consign his album to critical inattention.
However, anyone familiar with the New York native would surely realise that, most likely, the conflict hardly registered. Since his first forays into music with Ratking – a project which deftly wove together the city’s parallel histories of boom-bap rap and No Wave noise – Wiki (AKA Patrick Morales) has set course as an uncompromising eccentric; an artist who rallies under his own (Wiki) flag, leaving others to heed the call.
First impressions of the album in the run up to its release seemed to indicate the return of very much the same Wiki. The video for lead single ‘Pretty Bull’ saw the rapper dancing on tables at an impromptu down-town party, unibrow intact, teeth decidedly less so, showing off the 'tattoos on his titties too' above bulging basslines. Turning his attention to his contemporaries, Wiki makes his outlook abundantly clear: 'I know you shook shits, sticking to the book bitch, I don’t give a fuck ‘bout y’all'. Raggedy, irreverent and verbose: so far so Wiki.
However, with No Mountains in Manhattan now upon us proper, the project reveals the rapper in a newly considered and introspective light, in what is probably his most assured and considered release to date.
Less a radical departure from his past, it’s a project defined by the refinement of key elements articulated throughout his discography. The wide-lens purview of his earlier output is exchanged for a more intimate focus. While he certainly still knows his way around a beat, we find the greatest excesses of his erstwhile motor-mouth tendencies subdued somewhat, that fact speaking volumes about his matured assurance as a rapper.
Kicking off proceedings, ‘Islander’ immediately acquaints us with the two core themes of the album: Wiki and the city. The curtains open to Patrick at the tender age of thirteen, alias newly acquired, and already wide-eyed in his adulation of the city from which he hails.
However, the object of his affection isn’t the picture postcard Manhattan, but rather, a deeply personalised portrait of the city, less the Empire State than it is Wiki’s place, mapped out by the delis and diners; the corner-stores and rooftops he frequents.
Moreover, it’s thoroughly lived in too, populated by a constantly revolving cast of characters, shouted out by Wiki throughout the album’s duration. On the aforementioned ‘Pretty Bull’ he excitedly announces the arrival of Slicky, Micky and Blanco; ‘Made for This’ opens to him ordering a sandwich (bacon, egg and cheese, for those interested) from a dude called Mario; apparently Wiki’s been using Matt’s phone and he’s sorry. It often feels like we’re tagging along for the ride as Wiki – the self-proclaimed ‘Mayor’ – cruises through his neighbourhood, bumping into old friends as he goes, taking the time to stop in and maintain relationships.
Other characters make appearances; in particular a woman, obliquely specified, her presence seemingly all the more significant for that fact. Like that of the city which sets the scene, his portrait of their relationship is one detailed in the upmost specificity, to the extent even that it verges on the voyeuristic. We learn about their cooking habits together and her penchant for DIY; their most intimate sexual proclivities are disclosed in almost embarrassing detail. Although, as we later learn, the relationship collapsed, Wiki is characteristically pensive about that fact. ‘Pandora’s Box’ charts the course of the relationship, from their initial hook-ups through to its eventual demise, ending with the refrain: ‘If there was a lesson then baby we learned it / I think that you earned it / I know it was worth it.’ Sure, love didn’t ultimately prevail, but it was a vital chapter in the making of the man nonetheless.
True to the twin themes of Wiki and his city, the album features minimal guest contributions, electing to keep the focus zeroed in on Mr Morales himself. But, where they do pop up, Wiki keeps things close to home, abandoning the pond-crossing eclecticism of 2016’s Lil Me in order to shine a light on the NYC underground.
Of particular note is ‘Litt 15,’ featuring Your Old Droog, a rapper whose sandpaper soliloquies provide the perfect counterpoint to Wiki’s nasal “New Yoik” inflections. As frequent collaborators, it’s a tried and tested formula; however, the track certainly isn’t lacking in ambition. DJ Earl’s production efforts flow free-form out the speakers like a chance meeting of sounds, served up by a serendipitous streetscape: muffled bass escapes the confines of a block-party; elsewhere, someone’s transistor radio broadcasts tinny strings, providing the inadvertent accompaniment to a neighbour’s soloing saxophone. Wiki and Droog’s composure over such amorphous underpinnings speaks volumes about their assurance as rappers, a testament to years spent honing their craft.
In other productions there’s a pervasive air of hip-hop classicism – latent in the soul samples which saturate ‘Mayor,’ in ‘Jalo’s’ turntable scratching. But there’s still plenty to keep things fresh. Claves and congas clatter beneath the 808 bass on ‘Islander,’ subtly nodding to Wiki’s Puerto Rican heritage. Elsewhere, the almost orchestral accompaniment on ‘Face It’ provides what is surely the most grandiose setting this gutter-punk has ever had the fortune of squatting, albeit aurally. All in all, it is progress within defined parameters, staying true to hip-hop’s history, whilst simultaneously breaking new ground.
Listening through some of the days’ other releases, it’s clear a sentiment of iconoclasm prevails, the desire to tear down the edifice of the past in the name of progress evidenced in their trap-centric sensibilities. In comparison, Wiki is clearly a musician with distinct prerogatives. No Mountains in Manhattan reveals Wiki as a man committed to his history, indebted to the people, places and music he has encountered along the way. But, it is equally clear that, far from weighing him down, it is precisely that commitment which compels him towards growth. On ‘Face It’ he states ‘Nah I want the city better than the level it was at / I been staying up day and night measuring the task / Of what it’s goin’ take to get the city on blast’. The message is one of a man determined to make it work, to progress the sounds of the city which raised him.
It’s too early to say how Wiki’s latest effort will fare when faced with such staunch competition; but really, it’s irrelevant. On the basis of this latest LP, its clear Wiki is in it for the long haul. Once the hype-acts dissipate, he’ll still be here. And you’ll know where to find him.
Released August 25, 2017