“I Came Home, I Stayed Home”: The Complete Story Behind GoldLink’s ‘At What Cost’
“People are dancing to my pain and they don’t even know it. They get to dance and have fun while I’m still telling this story about how real…hectic [stuff] gets.” - Goldlink (2014)
On the 9th of March, GoldLink released “Meditation,” the second single from his then-forthcoming album, At What Cost. The synths vibrate with the calming warmth of a baby’s giggle, accompanied by sparse, tropical drums that swing with an infectious spirit. It's the kind of production that kindly asks your foot to tap, your legs to kick, your hips to wiggle―by the time GoldLink arrives with his smooth, yet bouncy flow, it’s hard to not slowly drift into a state of insouciance. The addition of Jazmine Sullivan’s voice only adds to the elegance and soul of “Meditation”; “Shake, shake, shake the nerves off, in the name of dancehall shake the nerves off,” she sweetly asks, a request that is hard to deny once the synths fade and the jaunty percussion possesses the body. You are in the moment, you are in the party, but it’s only for a brief second―the beat slowly fades, voices are heard and, unexpectedly, the sound of gunfire erupts.
I ask GoldLink during our phone call how the song goes from a good time to such an escalation of violence. He pauses for only a moment before calmly responding, “It happens every weekend.”
The night of “Meditation”'s release, GoldLink had a club appearance at Rosebar in his hometown of Washington, DC. Nothing too special, another night with his mans, another night in his life, but the arrival of someone that was on bad terms with his mans brought tension in a realm of celebration. It didn’t take long before a fight erupted, an inevitable clash. Just like on “Meditation,” a night of fun swiftly turned into something more aggressive―life imitating art, or better yet, art captured by life. No shots were fired that night, but before he could enter the fray, GoldLink recalled, “A girl grabs me. She’s in my ear saying, ‘You have so much to live for. Look at your life, look at all these things, don’t throw all this away for these niggas.’ I don’t know who she is, and she’s holding me around my waist.”
GoldLink, born D’Anthony Carlos, is a relatively famous rapper who is becoming bigger by the second. When he speaks, the way his words are pronounced and the heavy accent give away where he's from. Since the release of his 2014 debut mixtape, The God Complex, his "future bounce" signature sound has amassed a wildfire following that is only burning brighter by the day. “Crew,” the lead single from At What Cost, recently crossed the 1 million view threshold on YouTube. In April, GoldLink will be the first-ever rapper from DC to perform at Coachella, a huge win for him and his city.
The woman who held him that night was right, his future is too bright to be thrown away in a brawl, but that’s the risk of being home―so many promising young kings fall at home before their castle can be fully built. Your status may change, but if your environment is a jungle, you’ll always have lions, tigers and bears baring their fangs. GoldLink’s case is different, though. Home isn’t just where his heart is, home is where a hero is needed, one that the people can see. The fight was just another slice of home, but the girl was another reminder of how much his city loves him. The love outweighs the hate.
Respect is important to GoldLink, seeing respect from those in the city that raised him is meaningful. His father is the one who advised him early on that when things started to get bigger, his home should be his return destination. LA was encouraged, an attempt to push him to the plastic wonderland that all rappers are sent to when it feels as if their time is coming. GoldLink resisted, fighting to make home the setting for his inspiration, and that became the backdrop for At What Cost.
Ciscero, a Maryland native, friend and frequent collaborator, said it best, “I get [that with] the internet, you can represent from a million miles away, but at the same time, you got to bask in the everyday life of it to really exude it. You are influenced by what you're constantly around"—a statement that reminded me of Future's account of living in LA with his then-fiancé Ciara. It was the era of his Honest album, and while some will vouch for Future’s sophomore effort, calling it underrated, there are hardcore fans that look back on that album in disgust. It wasn’t until Future returned to Atlanta, returned to the trenches was he able to pull out his legendary mixtape trifecta―Monster, Beast Mode, 56 Nights. He found himself back at home and reemerged as a codeine-drenched phoenix.
Self-discovery and home came at once, and it’s only natural that At What Cost would slowly morph into a project reflective of his environment. When you press play on the album, you hear of places in DC, you hear the language of DC, the swag of DC, the attitude of DC and the heartbeat of his city. Regional rap isn't dead, GoldLink is making sure DC is represented like how artists put on for Atlanta, New York and LA.
Obii Say, a fellow DC rapper, collaborator, and executive producer on At What Cost, explained all the intricate transitions that play a part in the album’s pacing. “The transitions capture the spontaneity, the unpredictable pattern of DC," he points out. “Go-go is one aspect, significant because it's spontaneous. We wanted to translate that energy, capture the city’s elements. Different aspects, different parts for people who are from here and for people who aren’t. DC is best understood through experience, but the next best thing is to relate.”
The abrupt, impromptu shifts happen swiftly and suddenly. The gunshots that happen on “Meditation,” the stuttering self-destruction that plays out at the end of “Have You Seen That Girl,” a vigorously vicious freestyle is interrupted by a soulful choir singing of heartless triggers―each of these moments are like lightning striking on a cloudless day, but each one is meant to evoke how calm can turn to chaos in the blink of an eye. The first listen is like boarding a roller coaster blindfolded, you don’t see the loops coming but you feel each one―the thrill of not knowing when your world will be turned upside down.
Tone and atmosphere were a huge focus in making At What Cost feel alive. The album's meant to transport listeners into a storyline that’s more broad than linear, but which can easily be followed. The “Opening Credits” sound like a sample from a movie clip, a haunting premonition of what’s to come. Every song has significance, but one of the most notable to the story is the KAYTRANADA-produced “Hands On Your Knees.” The beat is mesmerizing but there’s no rapping, GoldLink is only mentioned in the narration of Kokayi, an OG DC sage who emulates the lead mic at a go-go show. Kokayi playing the lead mic and interacting with the crowd is reminiscent of stepping into any club, but this is a DC club.
The album’s main character found a girl he’s infatuated with on “Have You Seen That Girl?” but the problem is that she’s from the opposite side of town―Obii confessed that in DC, “You need to worry about what street you're on more than what color you’re wearing.” That’s why the first question GoldLink asks the woman he’s pursuing is, “Shorty, where you from? Where your momma stay.” Each song is a rising action to the shooting that occurs on “Meditation,” a brewing beef between two sides over a woman―a modern day version of the Capulets and Montagues.
"Essence" is a word that recurred in all my conversations about the album. Both Link and Ciscero stressed that the goal was not to make a go-go album but to capture the essence of the go-go they grew up on. Instead of just acquiring the sound, the instruments and the BPM, the vision was also to capture a feeling of going to a go-go―the fun and joy, along with the dread and darkness. The original go-go bands sprung into the DC area in the mid-'60s to late '70s, a style of music that never peaked in the mainstream but has evolved and is still relevant to DMV residents.
It wasn’t just music, either. Go-go is a culture that created a community in DC. GoldLink remembers his era of go-go well. “The new bands were like ADM, AllStarz, XIB—all these bands started coming out of the hoods. They took the music and made it less musical and more minimal. They stripped all the instruments down and made it into bounce. Then it started turning violent. That music created an essence in the city that touched everyone. It sunk into the schools, the community, the churches—go-go was all that DC people listened to for like four years when we were growing up. It became such a cult, such a tribal thing [that] it created a lot of tension and a lot of people died.”
The violence that came along with go-go juxtaposed with the beauty of people coming together to celebrate the music they created was thrilling but turned problematic with city officials. Go-gos were deemed unpredictable; a place where you could go to hang with the homies, but it was uncertain how each night would turn out. While the community loved the culture, clubs were being shut down and would refuse to allow go-go bands to perform.
"I became so afraid of death that I’m no longer afraid of it.”
“When they said, 'R.I.P. Lukey Luke on the mic'—there’s a video on YouTube—everybody started jumping, losing their minds," Link reminisced, talking about how a young man hit by a car was celebrated by throwing a go-go in his honor. "They’re celebrating this dude's death because that’s what they think he would want them to do. So there's a positive aspect to it and a negative aspect to it. I wanted to blend both of them. That’s why 'Meditation' is so light and so fun but ends so fucked up.”
He also recalled how the stabbing of a 17-year-old boy was the last straw for his era of go-go (surprisingly, something similar happened in 1987). The city implemented a ban that took away a piece of the city's culture. It was like taking away their identity in their own backyard.
What happens when a piece of beautiful culture and community is also the cause of death and dread? “As an area, we suffer from a form of PTSD from that era alone. That’s where the darkness comes from,” Link states, referring to some of the darker undertones that can be heard on the album. Along with a case of PTSD, Link is coming to terms with the fact that he’s been dealing with a mountain survivor's guilt. For most of our conversation, his voice is as calm as a slumbering kitten, but there was a lot of weight attached to his words when he confesses, “I lost a lot of niggas, and I’m way too young to say that," adding, "I lost a lot of good people. You don’t know how many niggas died just making this album. Niggas die so much around here we can’t be afraid of that motherfucker no more. I became so afraid of death that I’m no longer afraid of it.” Eerie, yet profound, his views of death can only come by way of too many funerals for men and women who were too young to go.
“Do you know what happens in the summertime?” Obii asked me during our conversation. “It’s the most beautiful time of the year, and the rise of shootings and murders.” As his words cut through me, I couldn’t help but think of Chicago, New York and all the other cities that get hot as soon as summer arrives. “It starts early,” he said, “So early that you don’t know what happens.” Over 600 miles away in Atlanta, I could feel death in the air. The trigger has no heart.
You can’t have the light without the darkness, which is why At What Cost doesn’t pick a side. It gives listeners a dose of feeling the most alive and the feeling that life can be taken away at any moment.
There’s a line on “Crew” that I only recently caught, one that’s far darker than the song: “Niggas got killed for the boy living dreams in the hills.” This is his lead single, one of the more radio-friendly songs on the album. He doesn’t dive in too deep, but if DC is a m.A.A.d city, GoldLink wasn’t a good kid—he's a troublemaker who was once more Vince Staples than Kendrick Lamar. At What Cost reminds me of Vince's Summertime '06, both albums are glimpses into the dark sides of two artists who escaped from the madness but haven't entirely left it behind them.
"That’s supposed to be the devil talking to me.”
There’s an internal struggle Link is still coming to terms with on this album, regarding how he went from bullshitting around the city to attending pep rallies because kids at the school wanted him in attendance; being embraced in places where he was once kicked out of, and receiving blessings while seeing the ghosts of all the friends who didn’t make it here to stand alongside him.
A slice of GoldLink's past can be heard on “The Parable of the Rich Man.” I originally confused the woman's voice for a girl, and he candidly corrected my mistake. “These are real stories. That’s not a female, that’s supposed to be the devil talking to me.” This is his version of DMX’s “Damien,” or better yet, Kendrick Lamar’s Lucy on “For Sale?” For all the times he’s escaped death, for every time he’s dodged a bullet, for every time he survived when there was no way to survive, she claims to be the reason and now she wants him to pay.
The heaviness of confronting the melancholy side of DC life doesn’t drown the songs in sorrow, it’s actually the DC guest features that assist in keeping the album bright and full of soul. This communion of artists connects with go-go’s idea of people coming together to celebrate black music. Kokayi is a highlight, without spitting a bar he is a shining example of all the club DJs who make you feel like you’re in the liveliest of parties.
Wale, another DC OG, floats on the springy “Summatime.” He’s still the slick wordsmith who will find a way to intertwine references of Prince and Cinderella. Link admitted that he wasn’t aware of Brent Faiyaz prior to “Crew,” but the fact that he was from back home was reason enough to gamble on his voice—a gamble that paid off. I’m still in awe that Link was able to find Mya, but the famous DC native also delivered. Jefe (formerly Shy Glizzy), Ciscero, Lil Dude and April George all hail from the DMV and all appear on At What Cost.
The only features that aren’t homegrown are Steve Lacey (of The Internet) and Jazmine Sullivan―both who delivered performances noteworthy enough to become honorable residents. There’s also the little nuances, all the streets, buildings, parks and slang used. "Crew"'s music video takes place not far from Link's father's house, and those that know the area will appreciate the significance of its appearance. Even a title like “Kokamoe Freestyle” has DC relevance, paying homage and immortalizing the Southeast freestyle legend. At What Cost is truly an album made at home, by those at home, that just happens to reach ears beyond the DC limits.
After the pictures with André 3000 surfaced, there was speculation that the elusive OutKast member would be appearing on the album. When asked about Dré, Link said honestly, “Fuck a verse, the fact he gave me his time is a blessing. I just appreciate that shit so much.” I got a bit more out of Obii, who went with Link to New York and was in the studio that night. “It was surreal," he recalls. "[Andre] showed up, kicked it, and laughed with us. He gave us advice on maintaining and longevity. [It was] one of the most enlightening experiences. The whole time I kept thinking, ‘if I suddenly wake up from this dream, I’m going to be hot.'"
Compared to GoldLink’s previous projects, At What Cost is a conceptual body of work that doesn’t give you a straightforward look at the man behind the mask, but it does give a transparent look into DC culture, and to know GoldLink is to know DC. There are a lot of different ways the album cover and title can be broken down, but I love the question that it poses: At What Cost? On the cover, he has the money, the gold, the girls and the car, but everything is burning all around him.
Speaking with Kazz, one of GoldLink's managers, he gives an interesting, abstract perspective:
GoldLink discovered himself while making this project. He brought in strangers from home and close friends who lived around the block. It takes friends and family to make an authentic piece of art that’s meant to represent more than yourself. At What Cost isn’t meant to be the crown jewel of DC, but rather the beginning of genuine preservation.
“I'm a walking testimony, but then imagine if that nigga start giving?" he asks, rhetorically. "You start feeling what that nigga doing. He’s not just taking from us, creating a story for us, but then he’s creating opportunity for us. That’s what it really is.” It’s not just about expanding home but bringing something back. It's about being the guiding light so that eyes outside the city can see there’s culture and talent being uncovered, ignored and overlooked.
The making of this album was a meticulous process, it went through constant changes and transformation before settling on a final version. The flow is still slick enough to impress a pimp in Port Arthur, Texas, and the production has the bounce that has made each GoldLink album a fulfilling listen. He's gotten deeper into musicality and textures, but the biggest difference this time around is a focus; a desire to present a side of DC that hasn’t had a chance to share its story. Not the prettiest story, not the most glamorous, but one that listeners should be able to relate to easily.
We’ve all been foolish for love, spent time with the crew, and had to bury a friend or two too soon. We all know about parties that turn into shootouts and the thrill of going back next week. Universal experiences delivered through a DC lens, one that truly takes you into the city where the White House stands, where go-go flourished, and where life greets death the way day greets night. By following one man's mission to get the girl, we're introduced to an area and culture that comes with the narrative.
At What Cost is fun, reflective and honest—a John Singleton coming-of-age gangster blockbuster meets Shakespearean romanticism. An album about what happens when you go back home to find the story you were always meant to tell.
By Yoh, aka #BringOurGirlsHome, aka @Yoh31