Wiki & Navy Blue Are In The Zone
Once upon a time, virtually every rap album only had one producer. In the ’80s and early ’90s, rappers and producers typically found one another, and then they bunkered up and went to work. The current landscape of emailed beat packs and albums constructed to check certain boxes isn’t necessarily the natural order. That’s a big part of the reason why the recent boom in single-producer rap albums has been so great. In the best of those albums, rappers and producers lock in on an aesthetic and then explore that vibe. (Some producers are better at developing that vibe than others. It’s not exactly a surprise that Haram and Bo Jackson, two of 2021’s best album, both share the same producer.) Too often, though, rapper/producer collaborations can feel a bit like idle wheel-spinning experiments — exercises to fill time. I was afraid that Wiki and Navy Blue’s new album would turn out like this. I shouldn’t have worried.
You could understand why I might be worried. Wiki and Navy Blue both make a lot of music. Navy Blue is Sage Elsesser, a California-born pro skateboarder and model who was childhood friends with Earl Sweatshirt. For his first few years writing and producing, Elsesser kept his identity secret. Eventually, he eased into a role as part of a sort of insular, thoughtful lo-fi rap intelligentsia. Last year, Elsesser released two Navy Blue albums, Àdá Irin and Song Of Sage: Post Panic! A few months ago, he released another one, Navy’s Reprise. Navy Blue also produced all of AKAI SOLO’s recent album True Sky. The New York rapper Wiki, meanwhile, has been in the game for nearly a decade, first as a member of Ratking an then as a solo artist. Earlier this summer, Wiki got together with producer NAH to release the strange, experimental album Telephonebooth.
I like all of those projects, but still, you can’t miss someone who never goes away. Elsesser has spoken of his admiration for Ka, the monastic Brooklyn rapper whose albums are quiet masterworks of layered allusion and mythology. But Ka has never been a constant presence on the landscape. He arrives, throws another dazzling new album out into the world, and then disappears. For those of us who are part of his cult, whenever Ka does anything, it’s an event. Sage Elsesser has worked hard to build his own aesthetic, much as Ka did, but he doesn’t have that sense of gravity or restraint. (Really, nobody does.) A lot of Elsesser’s music is moody and internal enough that I have trouble locking in on it. It feels like it’s keeping me at arm’s length.
Wiki, on the other hand, has never kept anyone at arm’s length. He’s an open book. Wiki practically grew up in public, dropping out of high school when Ratking signed with XL and acting as an emissary for a whole New York skate-rat culture. Wiki’s raw personality has always been one of his best traits; he’s the kind of guy who will rap about picking scabs or about leaving dirty dishes in sinks for days on end. (I don’t think Wiki has ever rapped about either of these things; they’re simply the kinds of things that he would rap about.) Even as Wiki has matured and his music has grown more considered, he’s preferred a certain type of siren-alarm clatter in his music.
Half God, which comes out on Friday, is a bit of a departure for both Wiki and Navy Blue, and I thought maybe it would come off as a consciously minor album. It’s not. Instead, Wiki and Navy Blue display an easy, expansive chemistry. They make sense together. Half God is billed as a Wiki solo album, but Navy Blue produced the entire thing. On Half God the two artists find common ground. Sage Elsesser has been living in Brooklyn for years now, and while his Half God beats are wistful and ruminative, they are still very much New York beats. The drums on tracks like “New Truths” are hard enough to snap your neck. Meanwhile, through much of the album, Wiki is in wistful-storytelling mode, rhapsodizing about falling in love or about finding refuge on the rooftop of his building: “Can’t stop, peering over watching the ants walk from my rooftop, feeling enormous/ And then the wind hits, filling me with endorphins/ And now I know what’s really important.”
In some ways, Half God is a product of community. Navy Blue only raps on one song, “Can’t Do This Alone,” but that song has a light playfulness that feels fully second-nature. You can tell that these guys like being on a song together. Other guests on the album are kindred spirits to both Wiki and Elsesser: Earl Sweatshirt, MIKE, Remy Banks, duendita, Jesse James Solomon. There are no sore thumbs here. Everyone belongs. All the rappers come off as people who would hang out with each other whether or not they were making music.
But most of the songs don’t have guests. They’re intimate affairs, and you can hear Wiki and Navy Blue hitting their stride as a unit. In a Pitchfork interview earlier this year, Elsesser talked a bit about how he’d started to open himself up to the practice of rapping on other producers’ beats: “When you make a beat a lot of the energy you’re feeling goes into that, so it feels like there’s nothing left to say. But when you get somebody else’s, it’s like an open canvas. I thought for a long time that I was going to produce all my own shit, but I really love the process of giving up to God and seeing what comes.” Maybe something similar happens when Elsesser gives his beats to a rapper like Wiki. Wiki is a character, and his voice always pops right off of the track. When you give Wiki a beat, that beat becomes his.
There are plenty of moments on Half God where Wiki gets personal, but Wiki still talks a lot of shit on the album, and he’s great at that: “I been sonnin’ son since the first son of a gun/ Since the first someone’s tongue the expression was uttered from.” If anything, Wiki’s wordplay has only grown more confident in recent years: “Don’t start with me, ain’t got the heart to spark with me/ Barking out your face, but talk is cheap/ When I make a remark, I remark remarkably.” Wiki’s swagger is so tremendous that his real talk feels realer. When he talks about living on unemployment or never wanting to be too famous to ride the train, his matter-of-fact vulnerability is enormously appealing.
In its best moments, Half God is just a beautiful record. Closing track “Grape Soda” is one of the straight-up prettiest rap songs I’ve heard in a long minute. Navy Blue’s drumless production is built from hazy, chopped-up R&B vocals and doo-wop murmurs, and that track sends Wiki into a state of deep reverie, talking about steam rising off of concrete and the sound of a freestyle record bubbling out of some unseen window. In moments like that, Wiki and Navy Blue’s New York sounds like the most glorious place on earth. I hope both of them stay in that place, literal or metaphorical, and I hope they make more music like this, together or apart.
1. RXKNephew – “Blackberry Touchscreen”
First off: I like this beat. This is a good rap beat. But as Harley Geffner points out on the Passion Of The Weiss, the best thing about “Blackberry Touchscreen” is how much RXKNephew hates that beat. The Rochester rapper devotes much of the track to rapping about how he thinks this beat is dusty old bullshit: “This a dirty durag Memphis Bleek-type beat! This some fat Beanie Sigel neck Philly cheese type beat!” Also: “This a beat that Jay-Z woulda thought was hot! This a beat that labels woulda invested in and made everybody flop!” RXKNephew should only rap on beats that he hates.
2. Latto – “Big Energy”
The “Genius Of Love”/”Fantasy” sample remains undefeated. But then again, I would think that. I’m the type of old motherfucker who likes the “Blackberry Touchscreen” beat.
3. Fat Tony – “Ain’t For Me”
Fat Tony talks about “Ain’t For Me” as a work of storytelling, but it really sounds like a man figuring out that he doesn’t want to raise his kids in the United States. It sounds realer than most non-storytelling raps.
4. Kent Loon – “The Mist” (Feat. Valee & Chester Watson)
I like it when a song makes me feel like something bad is about to happen.
5. BIA – “Besito” (Feat. G Herbo)
This is honestly just an OK song, but I love how persistently bored BIA sounds. She’s like Nico or something.