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On a humid July night, the Nuyorican Poets Café reeked of must and marijuana. An age-old music venue tucked away on a tree-lined street in New York’s Alphabet City, the small space was packed tightly with twentysomethings dressed in baggy pants and skate T-shirts, fanny packs slung across their torsos. They were gathered to see the night’s main act, Wiki, the rapper best known as one-third of the hip-hop crew Ratking.
When Wiki emerged, all five feet seven of him, the crowd exploded. “Let’s get it,” he said, his grin exposing a wide gap on the top row of his teeth — the result of an unfortunate punch to the face that has become something of a trademark for the 23-year-old. And then he started rhyming: “I like Sunday dinner lounging/Kids in the crib clowning/City park kids running through the fountains, man/I like the mountain.”
Everything about Wiki is straight New York. Born Patrick Morales, he’s a half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican self-described mutt from the city’s Upper West Side. He spent his youth wasting time at Riverside Park. His speech is littered with city-specific slang, words like hella and bet. When he raps, he spits his lyrics in a dense and jaunty flow that could only be a product of his chaotic hometown. It’s no secret that he’s proud of where he’s from.
And his debut album, No Mountains in Manhattan, reflects this. Out August 25, it’s a portrait of the city, and of the artist as a young man coming of age there. “I just wanted to keep it real New York,” he says, lounging on a couch in his label XL’s Soho recording studio about a month after the show at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
While the album boasts production from household names — Kaytranada, Earl Sweatshirt, Sporting Life, Ghostface Killah — it also shines a spotlight on rising young local MCs. “Pretty much all the features are New York rappers,” he says, citing emcees he grew up with like Acab and Slicky Boy, as well as producer Tommy Seltzer, who Wiki met in high school. “We all kinda grew up together,” he says.
Along with his unique flow, details are what make Wiki stand out. He paints his world with them, homing in on a detail so oddly specific, it becomes relatable. “People [listen] to rap on some fantasy shit, like, ‘Oh, I got guns, I got bitches,’ but this is the opposite,” he says. “You can relate to this.”
In 2012, when rap fans first heard Ratking’s debut, Wiki93, it was this authenticity and attention to detail that resonated with them. Wiki had turned 20 right before the EP’s release, yet despite his age, he aptly conjured vivid images of life in the city. On the album’s “Wikispeaks,” he rapped: “I take the train every day it’s like a break from the pain/Subway cars keep my heart at bay/Single ride paid, they start to raise/I go under, I gotta tell you I don’t got the change.” It’s a reality any kid growing up in New York can relate to.
“I play my role as someone observing the city,” he says. “I’m just going to try and tell you what I am seeing and what’s around me.”
Wiki likens honing his rhymes to making a movie: Details give the film its complete picture, and when they’re not right, you notice. “It’s like when you see a New York movie. It’s set in New York but it’s clearly not New York,” he says. Referencing the Channing Tatum flick Fighting, he continues, “He plays a young New York dude in Queens. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t believe Channing Tatum was from New York.”
Listening to No Mountains in Manhattan, it’s apparent that Wiki is no longer the rowdy and reckless teen who boasted about jumping turnstiles and running amuck through the city’s streets. He’s toured the world, experienced heartbreak, moved out of his mom’s apartment. The album reflects all of this. “This is me facing shit,” he says.
No Mountains in Manhattan also tackles excessive drug usage and drinking. It talks of failed and new relationships. It deals with life. On the track “Face It,” Wiki walks us through his thoughts and anxieties, against a backdrop of sultry saxophone. “No Mountains in Manhattan is about trying to grow, and I’m still going through it,” he says. “I feel like with everything I’ve been through over the last couple years — my relationship and that falling apart, it kinda [being] my fault — now it’s time to just get it off.”
“I hope people sit and really pay attention to it — you can’t just hear it once,” he continues, taking a sip of the Modelo in his hand. “Ya know, you gotta live with it. Take the train with it, you know what I mean.”