Wiki’s ‘No Mountains in Manhattan’ Is a Classic
Let’s just call it what it is, OK? No Mountains in Manhattan is a classic album from the 23-year-old New Yorker Wiki—he of the missing front teeth, better collabs with Skepta than Drake, and stylish updating of the NYC backpack era. His group Ratking was awesome and ahead of its time, mixing ’90s NY touchstones like KIDS and Zoo York’s Mixtape with Boiler Room’s zeitgeisty UK lens on electronic/rap music. Ratking made unusual fire that helped coax NYC rap out of insular legacy regurgitation before calling it quits. Now after one dope solo album (Lil Me, 2016), Wiki is back with a knockout concerto, toasting NYC with a cold nutcracker as summer wraps. He accomplishes some of what Ratking was about and builds his personal story over 16 tracks in three movements. It’s an arty party with a subplot about adulting.
Themes get deep on NMIM, but the surfaces are really cool too. From the opening track “Islander,” just one bullet point in a Julie Andrews list of things Wiki likes:
“The sunset on the Hudson / look at the light / look at me like, ‘Right?’”
Stare into the sparkle. Get lost. Wiki does it with life, and you can do it with his rapping—the first reason to listen to this record. Phonetic riffing and verbal snapshots are key Wiki strengths, part of his NYC inheritance of descriptive-detail rap (Ghostface guests on “Made For This,” father of the style), and in-pocket, more-musical-than-average flows (time-honored from Method Man and Buckshot to, I don’t know, Charles Hamilton?). Melodic cadences are newly pronounced on this album, and Wiki opens chambers for himself by harmonizing on “Mayor” and “Jalo.”
“Mayor” comes in the opening third of the record, the aggressive I’m New York as Fuck third, a road-dog howl over a soul loop from 1969 chopped by Tony Seltzer: “All I gotta do is rhyme today / tell me what time I’m on stage.” It’s also a gregarious statement of connection to the city he came up in (“I seemed to glow and pound / at any fist seen holding out”) with a video that shows a simultaneous understanding of belonging and not being shit. As Wiki cavasses for his fake-mayoral run, dapping everybody, he raps in front of Penn Station while a lady walks through the frame and casually brushes him aside. It is extremely New York how little she cares! He is unfazed, too. You grow into that as a New Yorker, maybe. Mattering in the scheme of things, but not more importantly than anyone else.
As if to prove he’s the die-hardest New Yorker, Wiki raps on this album about bagels and lox, bodega sandwiches, and walking the entire length of Manhattan. His NY is not closed-off, though. In the record’s third act—which we can think about as I’m Good at Rap and I Love New York (And Everything is Chill)—“Jalo” appropriates the chorus from Outkast’s “Rosa Parks,” symbolically showing the old NY/Dirty South beef to be nonexistent. The Atlanta homage occurs in a hook that also mentions the extremely NY experience of hanging out at Big Nick’s 24-hour pizzeria and diner, where there are about 1,000 things on the menu. Wiki sounds great singing the chorus, and the decision to lose the drums and add atmospheric scratching brings the music into the land of reverie.
Scratching is not in fashion at the moment, but moving from “fashionable” into “just good music” is a better place to be the older you get. There’s no drums on the prior song either, “Wiki New Written,” a dusty loop by Earl Sweatshirt (producing as randomblackdude). The meditative vibe helps set a tone as the album completes its final movement.
In the middle of the album we get into stickier issues, the What the Fuck Am I Doing With My Life section. This is where Wiki looks inside himself and tells his story. “Face It” is about facing blunts, facing drinks, Xans… mostly drinks, it sounds like. Addiction is real and Wiki is trying to be careful about it while clearly feeling the pull and suffering consequences. And then there are back-to-back relationship songs: “Elaine” is a funny Seinfeld reference about the idea that the love of your life could be sitting right in front of you this whole time, and you’re ignoring it. It’s lighthearted and yet heavy-ish, like, Hey, I’m addicted to reckless smashing but I want to be in love and I’m sad about it. You know how some people make jokes when they are nervous to say something serious?
“Pandora’s Box” follows, featuring Evy Jane. It’s a song about Wiki getting into his cultural identity as Puerto Rican–Irish, which he credits to his ex-girlfriend Princess Nokia without naming her (in the song he calls her “princess” and “the waviest”—her old music name was Wavy Spice). The song is co-produced by Sporting Life from Ratking and sounds like clouds, heaven, dreams, and smoke. It leads into the drums-less part of the third section of the album, sequenced perfectly, with bars of gratitude:
“You was my teacher / I was your creature / told me it’s more than P.R. / told me I was boricua / we met doing a feature / fell in love in a week / I don’t know, I just reached you / I was a mutt / didn’t know who I was / you made me feel I belonged / like I was one of ya / cuz I was one of ya / what the fuck was I saying / just cuz I don’t know the language? / this shit’s in my blood”
That’s love! God bless Princess Nokia. Evy Jane acquits herself nicely too with her verse about love, mental health, and life as a process. It’s mature stuff that doesn’t come off preachy, so much as reflective and healthy. We all need to appreciate the things which make us what we are and respect the formation. Development doesn’t happen overnight, nor in vacuum.
And that’s really what this album is about. Being formed, being influenced, flexing with what you’re good at while recognizing where you came from. The end of pretending you’re a self-made unicorn. Rapwise Wiki has the benefit of jazz-like timing (he performs with jazz band Onyx Collective sometimes). He doesn’t need technical coaching and excels oftentimes with nothing but good style, spirited delivery, and pattern ingenuity. But he’s been the best rapper at the party forever, and that’s not good enough anymore. So he’s doing the next thing, looking around for deeper meaning, looking up—No Mountains in Manhattan is named for skyscrapers which create their own Alps, Andes, or Rockies inside New York City. He’s looking inside the details of the city and inside his own psyche.
At certain turning points in life you start appreciating positive forces more, editing out bullshit—and noticing that your own bad habits are actually serious issues. It’s scary but it’s cool to grow. If you need inspiration maybe this is the album that will motivate you. I certainly can’t remember a quarter-life crisis sounding this good.