by Stephen Kearse
It’s easy to get sucked into the realism of Ratking’s world. Guided by Wiki and Hak’s undiluted New York accents and Sporting Life’s manic production, subway lines, forgotten payphones, city corners, Stop and Frisk, Washington Square Park overrun by NYU kids, and other features of New York City all coalesce into photographic detail, forming a vivid vision of the city that radiates truth. It takes perceptive minds, minds that see the city as it is, to represent it so concretely, but there’s some finesse involved in that act of recollection. It takes technique to walk those gritty streets and then talk about them in an equally gritty way, to know which corners to bring to life and which ones to never speak of. Ratking’s striking realism often obscures that technique, but on 55 5’s Sporting Life brings that technique to the fore, peeling back the layers of thought behind each sound and each sample.
The sounds are still as dense and muddled as his production for Ratking, but here they unfold slowly, exposing the logic behind each eclectic mix rather than just the finished thought. “The Sopranos” builds deliberately slowly, featuring disparate chords that flash amidst rolling percussion that becomes increasingly more abstract, like a runaway train just forgoing the tracks altogether and ascending into the sky.
This tendency toward abstraction doesn’t come across as pretentious, but sometimes it makes the tape’s direction hard to follow. “We Three” is one of the more static tracks, languishing along without really building. “Looks Good On You” flames out similarly, its muted counter-rhythm drowned out by machinic chirps that won’t give up their front row seat. The tracks come across as indecisive, unsure what to be.
“Right now we don’t need hip-hop artists, we need the process in reverse: we need thinkers who are willing to take chances, and whatever they make will be hip-hop.” - Sporting Life
Sporting Life grounds the experimental tape through allusions to sports, particularly basketball. On “A.I. Style” a thumping strain of bass guides the frenzied song along, giving the echoing synths and jabbing wails something of a pattern despite their random arrangement, just like A.I. carrying the 76ers through oddball rosters. “Triple Double No Assists” works similarly, its thundering bass providing a throughline for the fluttering snares and screeching strings that dance in the background.
In the video for “Badd,” a song with chipmunk soul that nearly warps into chipmunk opera, Sporting Life faces four challengers on a Harlem basketball court, each silently lined up, waiting for him. The games are quick, courtesy of Sporting Life’s left-handed drive, but they feel tense, the match-ups all feeling personal despite their brevity. The video flits between crane shots, shots from the ground, and portraits of the players in action, but it’s the crane shots that really bring the song and Sporting Life’s style to life. He dwells on the details, the tiny motions that give you that critical edge, but above all he’s focused on the endgame, the next opponent, the next sound.
In a 2013 interview with FACT Sporting Life said, “Right now we don’t need hip-hop artists, we need the process in reverse: we need thinkers who are willing to take chances, and whatever they make will be hip-hop.” Sporting Life’s thoughts are a tad incomplete, but whatever they cohere into - hip-hop or beyond, new Ratking beats or new Sporting Life solo projects - the future he’s planning actually feels promising. And if he finesses it just right, that future might even be more truthful.