Wiki and Navy Blue find divine timing on 'Half God'
"Now he got the haircut, you know, he's mellow," producer Navy Blue says over the phone, remembering how New York rapper Wiki used to walk around with a knot from hitting the mic to his head during performances.
"I have the sweater vest," Wiki jokes.
Last month, Wiki and Navy Blue released Half God, a record that showcases the two artists' collaborative spirit. The process began in November 2020, when Wiki wrote "All I Need" in a Los Angeles studio with Earl Sweatshirt while Navy played them the beat. It would be the first song on the album. The rest of Half God was recorded by Benamin within a few months in New York.
"I've never had a project come out that felt like 'This is how I wanted it,'" Wiki says. But with Half God, "it just worked out."
Maybe it was divine timing. Over a decade after his introduction with RatKing, it's Wiki's third studio album, but the first entirely produced by Navy Blue. His sophomore album, Oofie, was released at the end of 2019, under very different circumstances: a few months before the pandemic, while Wiki was in the middle of a split with his label, XL, and a break-up, and after the dispersion of his rap group Secret Circle due to allegations against another member.
The difference on Half God, Wiki says, was the perspective he gained from slowing down because of COVID-19, and how it granted him the space to hone in: "I'm writing and I'm pacing / looking at the cityscape, is it a simulation?" he raps on "Roof." "In the middle of the city, in isolation."
Another difference in the process of making Half God, Navy Blue notes, is that Wiki wasn't drunk. Wiki says making music had always been tied to his understanding of himself, but also to drinking: "I gotta go do an interview, I gotta drink. I gotta do a show — So it's like 'Wait. How is this your therapy?'" Navy mentions that Wiki's arc is apparent in the difference between, say "Piece of S***," from the 2012 Wiki93 EP, and the way he raps about himself on this project, seemingly more conscious of both his self-deprecating tendencies and his ego, but also of how thoughts might transfer through music.
"Seeing clearer and I'm speaking clearer," Wiki adds. That sense of space and mental clarity for Wiki is mirrored in the sparse production background. Navy Blue describes it as "nothing too complicated ... just a few loops" which he credits to Earl's advice: "'Don't ever let the beat get over on you.'"
Where in the past Wiki's dipped in and out of the abstract using his voice and tone, here he completes his thought and allows the production to build the foundation for his introspection. Maybe it's sober self-reflection that allows Wiki to rap more cohesively about personal consequence, accountability and community.
"I felt like a lot of these beats allowed Pat to really shine," Navy says. (Navy, whose legal name is Sage Elsesser, usually refers to his friend and collaborator by his legal name, Patrick Morales.)
Navy's approach to production helped Wiki develop the confidence to scale back. And Wiki says that confidence in general can help make you a better person, like recognizing when he gets "aggy" because of "some weird chip" on his shoulder.
"With that confidence, you can address what you've done, genuinely apologize for what you've done, and grow," Wiki says. "That was a big thing for me. I'd be so apologetic, but it was always like 'You're not actually making the steps to be better.'"
Between the synergy of Wiki and Navy Blue is a sense that personal consequence and growth might be related to fate – in their music, self-awareness and understanding what to do with it can also be a spiritual process. On Half God, we see connection to spirit as part of the rapper's experience growing up in the city, like brujería picked up from an ex's abuela, or maybe a new understanding that words can cast spells, as on "Remarkably," which Navy happened to make the beat for four or five years ago: "When I make a remark / I remark remarkably."
When asked about his use of looping and how it mirrors connection to spirit, Navy Blue, whose mother is Buddhist, compares it to chanting, praying or hearing stories from an elder: "There's something really special about repetition," he says. "Every time it comes around, you hear it a little differently."
New York has been a character in Wiki's music from Ratking to his debut album No Mountains in Manhattan. The production follows suit here, too. Navy says he added a phaser on "Roof" to emphasize the peaks and troughs of being on the rooftop that Wiki raps about: "And then the wind hits, filling you with endorphins / And now I know what's really important."
A year and a half into the pandemic, Wiki's portrayal of New York has shifted. With over 50,000 people dead, the end of eviction moratoriums looming and staffing shortages in the city, the importance of laborers pulls into sharper focus. "Workers carrying bricks, women bearing kids/ Are you hearing this?" starts the intro.
Music has been a way of connecting to community for Navy, too; he says a highlight for him has been interactions with listeners who are train conductors and construction workers, coming up to him on the street. With three albums of his own released since last year (Àdá Irin, Song of Sage: Post Panic!, and Navy's Reprise), he says he makes music because it is "an esteemable act" and that it can be an act of service.
"There's a lot of people out here that aren't gifted with what Patrick has, which is a way with words," Navy says. "So somebody might listen to that and go 'Huh. Wow. He's saying what I don't have the words to say.'"
Wiki says fellow New Yorker Duendita, who's featured on Half God track "Still Here," has said something similar about his music. In particular, Wiki says she's a fan of "The Business" ("She was like 'Yo, "The Business" is my favorite joint," he says. "You just said what needed to be said"), an incisive track about the rapid gentrification of his home city:
You the gentrifier, terrorizer, not the terrorized
We retaliate, stay inside ain't nowhere to hide
We'll be waiting with a pair of pliers, take your teeth, repairing mine
For every time you tried to colonize
Buying from the bougie boutique instead of from the guys.
At 28, Wiki acknowledges he's benefitted from both the community in which he lives and the one strengthened by making music. His friend Andre quit drinking with him for three weeks while he wrote, and he says you can hear his voice in the background of the record. On Half God, we see how building a clearer relationship to yourself might allow for a similar understanding of your responsibilities, and to whom you're responsible. You can hear it in the song "New Truths," from which the album gets its name. Navy Blue inadvertently named the song when he named the beat, before Wiki wrote the lyrics to it, and Wiki's friend Theo later pulled the line from it ("Half God like Hercules") that would become the title of the album.
On "New Truths," Wiki sums these themes up, apparently it seems, subconsciously: "It all started with Party and Bulls***, then saw the flaming bush / Parted the seas, the moon hardly been pulling / Keep it pushing / Read a book or keep it shush." Along with features from Earl Sweatshirt and Navy Blue are those from New Yorkers MIKE and Remy Banks, bringing into clear view what you might be able to speak to when the non-essential falls away.