The Harlem-based hip-hop trio tell dark tales from New York's grimy underbelly. King Krule is among the guests
“So it goes” is a phrase coined by Kurt Vonnegut in his World War Two novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Used to illustrate the senselessness of war, it’s invoked in moments where we’re reminded how fragile life can be. As Vonnegut put it, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. As we might put it today: shit happens.
‘So It Goes’ is also the title of the debut album by Ratking, a Harlem-based hip-hop trio convened around Patrick ‘Wiki’ Morales, a 19-year-old punk kid and self-proclaimed “mutt” raised by an Irish dad and a Puerto-Rican mum on New York’s Upper West Side. Wiki grew up in relative prosperity, but he’s not one to boast about the high life. It’s New York’s grimy underbelly that catches Ratking’s collective eye, where life is cheap and the junkies of Harlem and the hustlers on Canal Street hold out stubbornly as luxury apartments sprout from the sidewalk. Still, Ratking – the trio completed by fellow MC Hak and 32-year-old beat-maker Sporting Life – aren’t the stuff of throwback, either. “The average rapper right now, it’s a whole different generation, you really can’t compare no more,” mutters the group’s friend Raymond Mitchell on the opening track, titled simply ‘*’. “If your life experience is different, that’s gonna come out different-ly. Your average 25, 24, 23 year old rapper, totally different from Biggie and Pac, you can’t compare the two. So you ain’t got no point of reference, really. So it goes…”
Accordingly, Ratking’s debut simultaneously sits within the lineage of NYC music, and strives to break out of it. It was part-recorded in Jay-Z producer Just Blaze’s Stadium Red, and part in the Greenpoint studio owned by label Hoss Records. Production-wise, it’s as hard and unyielding as the trap and drill sounds bubbling up from the American south, but also has ears open to modern dance trends, the blurred-out synths and skittering beats of the post-dubstep wave. It’s wild and often weird, not always out to please you. On the Dog Dick-produced ‘Protein’, beats jab spasmodically, a single note twangs monotonously, and Wiki lays out the Ratking creed: “This ain’t 90s revival/It’s earlier/It’s tribal revival”.
In Ratking’s hands, New York comes to life in vivid clarity. King Krule sings the hook on ‘So Stick Stories’, a woozy wind from Harlem to Times Square that sees Wiki waxing lyrical: “The city, it flows with the prettiest prose/Mixed with the gritty and gross…” Tales of mischief and misadventure abound, from scams on the subway – “turnstiles are nothin’/they called me grasshopper” raps Hak on ‘Canal’ – to ‘Eat’, where Ratking’s dissolute MCs trade tales of truancy, coke dealing and OxyContin addiction with pride and perhaps a little penitence. The excellent six-minute ‘Snow Beach’ finds Wiki and Hak in free-flow over a jazz instrumental that’s pure NYC hip-hop, but it’s drenched in distorting reverb, an effect that’s like seeing the skyline sprawled out from behind grimy, cracked glass. Every now and then, a saxophone breaks cover and lazily spirals across the pane, but for the most part it’s a thing of edgy tension, boxed in by concrete.
Here and there, though, it’s a bit of a grind. Ratking lack the devilish wit of Odd Future, or the street wisdom of Biggie or Nas, and a few more moments like ‘Puerto Rican Judo’ – a ghetto romance set to breezy drum’n’bass, with a vivacious cameo from female MC Wavy Spice – would help. Instead, Wiki and Hak fall back on bratty nihilism and excessive doomsaying. “The earth is fucked/The city is gone/Is it worth it for Wiki the don?” asks ‘Protein’. So it goes, maybe. But modern New York City is no war zone, and this trawl through the sewers is best when they remember to crack a manhole and let a little light in.