Learn To Learn Yourself Through Rap. Ratking’s So It Goes – A Review.
When anyone asks what I do for a living, I don’t tell them I basically convert government money into black coffee, or at least not right away. I also neglect to tell them I work in a bookshop, or that I’m a freelance writer. Most of the time I say: “I interview bands for a living”, which is mostly a lie, both professionally and financially. But I continue to say this for the same reason anyone else in my ‘position’ says this – because it sounds cool (and is a better conversation starter than the yawning abyss of unemployment that my career has solemnly promised me). There’s always been – especially from a distance – a kind of cool that music confers upon the music writer, something radiated and then captured by sheer proximity. It’s bullshit of course, but that’s beside the point. The point is this: whatever reflected cool can be caught as it bounces off the surface of modern music, it all stops at hip hop. At least it does for music writers who are slightly older, middle class and white. Which is a lot of us. Outside of the ubane alt-country scene, there’s almost nothing that plumbs the depths of uncool like an overeducated, sycophantic white guy dissecting hip hop. Take Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene giving Mobb Deep a perfect 10 recently (much to the groups chagrin) as an example, or Anthony ‘the Internet’s busiest music nerd’ Fantano from the Needle Drop, discharging rabid torrents of praise over Death Grips, A$AP Ferg, School Boy Q or Ratking. At best it’s irritating and irrelevant, at worst, vaguely insulting.
The only true point of difference between me and the guys I mentioned above is that I’m, if anything, even more ignorant. Before I’d even listened to Ratking’s So It Goes, I was assured that it was the most ‘Real New York’ hip-hop album since Nas’ 1994 record Illmatic. Yup, okay. I’m sure this comparison has produced a small amount of nodding and/or chin-stroking amongst those more familiar with the intricacies of golden age hip-hop. It means exactly nothing to me. So instead, I’m just going to offer you a cluster of intentionally uneducated impressions about Ratking’s So It Goes unstrung in strict chronological order. Make of it what you will.
- So It Goes employs a Kurt Vonnegut quote as the record title. Or more precisely, it employs a Kurt Vonnegut quote that appears no less than 106 times in Vonnegut’s cult classic Slaughterhouse 5 and is used to change the subject after talking about death, dying and questions of mortality. So before the first syllable has been uttered, my mind’s already on death and whatever follows. Is this what Ratking want to be? Disconnected from all previous rap culture, or a symbol of its rebirth, a weed spilling from the soil of a freshly filled grave?
- The first track, entitled ‘*’ Rewards any curiosity about the album’s title with conversational slurring about how generational differences in rap make generational comparison impossible, drawling: “You ain’t got no point of reference really, you gotta stick with the here and now…so it goes…”
- ‘Canal’ is pure adrenaline, a howling sample looped underneath Wiki and Hak’s dueling voices, every word creaking with disaffection. With the borrowed phrase ‘New York Rap Album’ spilling like a cloud of dye through my brain, I can’t help but hear the snare as feet slapping cement, or a snow-stricken New York street in their vocal hiss and gale of instrumentation. There is something inescapably New York about gritty hip-hop production coupled with a snarling anti-authoritarianism. But still, I wonder how inevitable these relationships would feel if the seed of Ratking as ‘Quintessential New York Hip-Hop’ wasn’t already pre-sown in my brain.
- Archy Marshall from King Krule casts a dolorous East Dulwich gloam over the already darkening New York soundscape in ‘So Sick Stories’. But it’s an inviting kind of grey-blue - wintery, percussive and languorous.
- The anti-police squall of ‘Remove Ya’ which starts with Wiki spitting “I’m a mutt, you a mutt, yeah we some mutts” finishes with a singular voice singing soft, mournful and tuneless, like something buried at the end of a forgotten Lomax spool.
- By the time ‘So It Goes’ (the track) drops in, the staggering half sung, half spoken style Wiki and Hak lean into occasionally is opening up, creating tonally satisfying flows, flecked all over with Spanish Harlem. Wavy Spice’s guest vocals on ‘Puerto Rican Judo’ pushes this sound even further forward in the mix.
- By the final track I’m still trying to guess at how genuine Ratking are. Are they truly the maladjusted pack of strays they so convincingly sound like? I analyse and re-analyse, trying to triangulate the social conditions which may have produced Ratking by examining their lyrical content, their production quality and the tangible self-awareness of the whole arrangement. Luckily I manage to stop myself. Thisis it. The exactly point where white, privileged music writers most often overstep their critical jurisdiction. I have no idea how genuine Ratking are — how the fuck could I possible know? And from my position as a listener in a Brunswick studio 17,000 kilometers away, it barely matters. What matters is not that they’re genuine, but that they’re genuinely interesting – something which I decided comfortably by the fourth track. Ratking are genuinely interesting. Noise-rap doesn’t cover the breadth of their range, DIY Hip-hop doesn’t account for their dense, complex arrangements. From an outsider’s perspective Ratking seem anomalous in the hip-hop landscape in that they seem to roundly reject the current fascination with excess and abandon. Contemporaries A$AP Mob, Danny Brown, Flatbush Zombies (et al) all seem pretty happy to lurch around mostly paralysed, making loosely rhyming lists of their liquid assets - as well as what they’ve been drinking, what they’re huffing and the ways in which ways they’d like to threaten any female orifice within reach. Ratking, not so. I mean ‘Puerto Rican Judo’ is an actual love song, of the distinctly non-flesh-crawling kind.
So by now you’ve all realized that this ‘review’ has run just the way it was always going to run: where the slightly older, white reviewer — incapable of writing about hip-hop without analyzing his own experience of discomfort while writing about hip-hop — has created a review comprised almost solely of naivety and guilt (in relatively equal parts). But maybe that’s just the point. Writing about music sort of should be self-analysis. After they were awarded a perfect score on Pitchfork, Prodigy from New York rap duo Mobb Deep, in true Hardcore East-Coast Hip-Hop style, tweeted viciously at writer Jayson Greene: “If u don’t come from our blood stream how can u make a proper assessment of our music [sic]?” I’ll be the first to raise my pallid right hand and say: “I can’t”. My windowless house and student loan aren’t really in the same realm of human experience as Mobb Deep, or even Ratking. I understand hip-hop the only way I know how to understand it, as well, me. I’m not really young, and certainly not underprivileged, both of which seem tantamount, most of all in rap culture, to creative vitality. And as I finished listening to So It Goes and switched to looking at Ratking’s two videos ‘So Sick Stories’ and ‘Canal’, this unspoken balance between youth and cultural veracity became all the more apparent.
The visual accompaniment to Ratking fills in a lot of gaps except, (importantly) Wiki’s triumphantly broken smile, which is missing about three teeth. These kids are young, which whether by accident or design, acts as the engine that drives their creative vitality, and by extension, their appeal. But before I go any further, I just wanna be clear: I’m definitely not saying Ratking’s success is hinged from their image, these guys are, even to my thoroughly untrained ears, very fucking good. However, what they are is certainly playing a very active role in the success of what they do. The ‘So Sick Stories’ video shows members of Ratking and King Krule with their bodies slackened against concrete dividers and miles of chain link fence, huffing smoke and wandering the streets of seemingly abandoned industry. And here’s where I found at least some of Ratking’s cool. Especially in King Krule’s Archy Marshall and Ratking’s Wiki, both of whom are conspicuously young, there is the distinct impression of willfully lost kids. Coupled with the thoroughly dystopic backdrop of abandoned industry, an almost Lord of the Flies atmosphere is evoked. To see kids, (the vessels wherein parents hoard their hope and unspent love) wandering the streets of failed industry alone and hopeless is pure horror for the old; simultaneously the symbol of a world without promise or hope, and a mumbled accusation: “You made this”. And therein lies the allure. The sublime opportunity for the young to say: “Fuck you. I ain’t your hope, I ain’t your future. You created this. Deal with it”
Ratking’s ‘So It Goes’ gets 4 out of 5 Boroughs.
For Cool Accidents