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Ratking Resurrect Backpack Rap on ‘So It Goes,’ and It Doesn’t Suck

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 08, 2014
Label: XL

Nostalgia is so irritatingly inexorable it can resurrect even the nerdiest of musical subgenres: backpack rap. Some might claim the earnest, hyperlyrical, outré faction of underground hip-hop never died, but a decade out from peaking in response to Diddy and the rise of the South, backpackers have dispersed as independent rap has become more diverse and inclusive than ever. Maybe Kanye is to blame. Long before he anointed himself God, he was the backpacker demigod, a basement-dwelling beatmaker turned semi-conscious firebrand.

No wonder Ratking – rappers Wiki and Hak, and producer Sporting Life – hail Yeezy as one of the greats. The crew of Manhattan natives first emerged in early 2012 on Wiki’s debut single, “Wikispeaks,” where the squishy-voiced rapper aligned himself with his heroes (and sent old heads reeling) with the canon revisionist line: “Damn I feel like Jay Z in ’96, Man I feel like ODB in ’93, Am I even an ’04 ‘Ye?”

So It Goes is a record that’s a product of its surroundings: New York City, and New York City rap. From the jazzy morality of A Tribe Called Quest, through the esoterica of Company Flow, and the cockiness of the Diplomats, Ratking embodies an organic nostalgia: one that feels less studious (*cough* Joey Bada$$) or trendy (*emoji eyes* A$AP), than a product of listening to a whole lot of shit growing up.

Wiki and Hak are a compelling pair: the former calls to mind the effusive prattle of Vast Aire or Camp Lo’s Sonny Cheeba, and the latter works with a stiff yelp that sounds more like Dizzee Rascal’s East Londenese than his native Harlem. They rap with combined vision, documenting a fast-fading iteration of New York City and – if the album’s intro about a conversation on rap in “the original Jimbo’s on Amsterdam” is to believed – extending the gentrification analogy to rap itself. “So Sick Stories,” featuring British moodyman and XL labelmate King Krule, feels (and sounds) like a modern day take on Black Star’s “Respiration.” Hak and Wiki flip verses about the gritty, pretty city while Krule floats, crooning, above the concrete gloam.

It’s not just a cross-Atlantic collab that makes So It Goes more than a North Face-puffy-wearing, underground-fetishizing rap record. Sporting Life is inspired; he crafts obtuse jazz rap that’s too messy to be labeled a mere Native Tongues rip (“Snowbeach”) and that moves into unexpected BPMs (“Puerto Rican Judo”). Princess Nokia purrs a Spanish Harlem-y verse on the latter, rhyming “judo” with “papi chulo” and, of course, “culo.” Whether directly inspired by backpack rap or just embodying the raw energy of that era, the group has none of the preachy divisiveness that made that movement a half-joke. Ratking is simply of a time when Kanye was a hidden genius housed at the Roc, and “Dipset Anthem” horns heralded a city’s battle cry.