Wiki proves New York rap is alive, well & still weird on No Mountains In Manhattan
Wiki started honing his talents as a member of Ratking, and struck out on his own in 2015 with the release of his debut solo mixtape, Lil Me. Now he's on XL for his proper debut album, No Mountains In Manhattan, the best and most cohesive work he's released yet. He didn't get to this level immediately, as he tells you himself on this album, which mirrors parts of his life story. On the intro track, Wik talks about being just 13 and learning how to rap, and compares the two islands his heritage comes from (Puerto Rico and Ireland) to the one he grew up on (Manhattan). Later on closing track "Leppy Coqui," which plays out like an epilogue, Wiki reflects on where he's at a decade later, "Made my own nation, out imagination / Imagine making everything you wanted out of patience?"
As a life-story album from a New Yorker would have to be, Wiki promised this record would be "New York to the core," and he delivered on that promise. From the skit where he orders a bacon egg and cheese at a bodega (a theme that's also popped up at live shows and in this funny video), to celebrating queer culture and shouting out now-closed club The Tunnel on "Pretty Bull," to rapping about playing stick ball with a Spalding, to a Ghostface Killah guest verse, No Mountains In Manhattan is a true snapshot of New York culture. New York can seem like a dirty, ugly place from the outside, but its inhabitants know otherwise. "How you gonna say ain't no mountains in Manhattan?" Wik asks on the title track. And in the spoken word portion at the end of that song, a voice lovingly adds, "I remember growing up [...] when I'd like, you know, be driving into New York, you know from the airport, driving on the BQE, and you see all the skyscrapers, and you're like 'Fuck man, that's my mountain range right there.'" It's as good a metaphor as any for how beautiful this city is.
Wiki's far from the only rapper to release an album that's "New York to the core" this year -- or hell, this month -- but it's been a while since I've heard one that's this classically New York and still weird, different, and totally new. Wiki takes some elements of the city's golden age, but he harnesses the New York spirit by being his own weird self, not by trying to recreate 20-year-old flows. At this point, Wiki rarely sounds like anyone else. He got a lot of comparisons to Eminem early on, and you can still hear a little of that on NMIM, but this time it's just a small ingredient of Wiki's truly original sound. Not to mention, deserving comparisons to Eminem means you can really rap, and Wiki proves again and again on NMIM how skilled he is on the mic. He holds his own next to a legend (the aforementioned Ghostface Killah) and as always, he sounds perfect going back and forth on "Litt 15" with frequent collaborator Your Old Droog (who, in keeping with the New York spirit, raps "still write rhymes like they gonna get heard by Sean P and Yambo").
The album's celebration of diversity, and its melding of past and present, is represented in the high-quality production on No Mountains In Manhattan too. Kaytranada blesses "Baby Girl" with the kind of modern funk that he does so well, while the Tony Seltzer-produced "Mayor" echoes '70s soul. Teklife's DJ Earl gives "Litt 15" a backdrop that sounds like walking into a West Village jazz club, while Earl Sweatshirt (under his randomblackdude guise) made "Wiki New Written" a beat that looks back on jazz through a warped, digital haze. Some of these beats sound like warm, live bands, while others (like "Made For This" and "Chinatown Swing") favor the ominous electronic production of a lot of 21st century rap. Wiki and his collaborators change up the sounds of NMIM enough to always keep the album ebbing and flowing, but never to the point where NMIM sounds like a playlist or a compilation. Between the skits, the recurring lyrical themes, and an overall vibe that makes even the most disparate songs sound like they're coming from the same place, No Mountains In Manhattan plays out like a movie, with a clear beginning and end. You need to give the album a little patience -- sit down for 57 minutes and really take in Wiki's words. As Wik tells it on that closing song, patience can really pay off.