A debut album that aspires to be more than an origin story is always a risk. This is because Western heroic narratives, with their beloved clichés and structures, are familiar to audiences. On Kanye’s The College Dropout or 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, for instance, the origin-story form means a first-time listener can readily engage with the artist's unique sounds and perspectives without getting too lost in specifics. The same is true in many other forms of Western popular media with roots in literature; the explosion of superhero films has highlighted the tensions between exposition and mystique, creative invention and boring retellings of well-known origin tales. At worst, the familiarity to these narratives is dulling, with artists seemingly condescending to their audiences.
The first voice we hear on 23-year-old Washington, D.C.-area rapper GoldLink's major-label debut album, At What Cost, isn't his own. That this is surprising speaks to how dominant single-perspective origin stories have become in rap music. The honor, instead, goes to little-known D.C. rapper Ciscero, who begins "Same Clothes as Yesterday" with a bracing verse that eulogizes both the homies that "get murked every day" and his mother. GoldLink follows with the trademark rhythmic staccato, contemplative introspection, and pimp narratives that galvanized rap fans on his 2014 mixtape The God Complex. Back then he coined "future bounce" to describe the sound he shared with producers Louie Lastic, Kaytranada, and Sángo, whose patterns of layering go-go, gangsta, gospel, and house were a foundational lattice for GoldLink's ramble-rap catapult through time and space.
Where "future bounce" insinuates the cosmic, At What Cost feels more oceanic. GoldLink's flows aren't spacey enough in the ever-elastic cosmos of today's hip-hop, nor is the production out-there enough, to deem this futuristic work. Mainstream rap has all but caught up to the dance-rap-pop stitchings he favored a few years ago; Azealia Banks’s “The Big Big Beat” and even Drake’s Afro-house pivot on More Life signal rap’s diversification and diffusion as the culture reaches middle age.
Instead, At What Cost's narrative depth and quick, panting vocal delivery — plus its evocation of D.C.’s historical black-diasporic sounds — evoke the bodily experience of a trust fall into the mid-Atlantic. The nation's capital is an apt location for GoldLink the hydronaut to dive deep into the musical-geographical underpinnings of his sound, exploring how the city's stories interlace with his growth and inform his fixation on death and dying.
Whether it's 3 a.m. at the turn-up function or a summertime stroll on a Southside sidewalk, GoldLink is observationally keyed in on moments of tragic irony. The stories range freely between his own lived experience and secondhand retellings gleefully spoken between figurative sips of Olde English and drags of Black & Milds.
Over Kaytranada's stupid-fun polyrhythmic beats on "Have You Seen That Girl?," GoldLink shakes Polaroids into focus, opening his verses with urban thumbnails of the precise moments when a fine dime crosses his path. Gorgeous women distract him in every part of town, from the black working-class Fairmont Heights to hood jungle Wak Wahler to the Simple City projects. If this sounds like a catcall anthem, that's because it sort of is. The song's treatment of masculinity gets more complicated when GoldLink alludes to the way a simple act of public macking can turn into a violent gamble between men in the streets. After the narrator is rejected, "The homegirl brother tried to fight me / Had to have the nigga kiss the bottom of my Nikes … I don't give a fuck about ya, see yo ass in hell."
The story underlines the fact that fragile masculinity can prove fatal to the men who perpetuate it — but it remains quiet about how so many rejection stories, in reality, play out violently against women. The implied excuse of "this is how the story went down" is well and good, but a song that leaves room for examination of how poisonous exhibitions of masculinity can be for all those involved would be better still.
Elsewhere, the dance-pop single "Meditation" and the following track "Herside Story" both represent a more favorable balance between narrative authenticity and honest egalitarianism. The former interpolates Kaytranada's "Track UNO" from 2016's 99.9% and features a Jazmine Sullivan hook where she rides the song's melodic scale, singing, "I wanna be your lover, your lady / Just wanna be your baby." The latter song includes some questionable quips (like the second verse sign-off "I ain't really mean to fall in love with a hood bitch, but it's you"), but Jessy Rose's glossy stop-start hook saves the record. When he sings, "Whenever the sun don't shine on the west side / You know I'm sitting pretty right by your side / Baby I'm down for you," the Irish singer adds a romantic counterbalance to GoldLink’s less palatable proclamations about women and relationships.
Given that GoldLink chose his stage name after watching 1999's American Pimp documentary and asking himself, "If I were a pimp, what would my name be?" one can reasonably expect to have to negotiate the complicated place of sex work in black urban mythologies to appreciate his music. This negotiation might not work for some, including (but not limited to) women, who've been historically left out of rap except as plot devices for men to understand themselves. But at least the book isn't entirely closed. Songs like “Herside Story,” “Meditation,” and “The Parable of the Rich Man” make it clear that GoldLink is a skilled storyteller with wide-ranging influences, from Peter Pan to CCB (his D.C. city-love track, “Roll Call,” is also the name of a song by that go-go band) — so one can only hope that his lyricism becomes less exclusionary. He's young and, perhaps, still needs time to figure out how to tell his stories.
At his core, GoldLink is a fatalist, and that perspective informs his fascination with dance and go-go’s ecstatic impermanence. The gunshots that cap off the indelible bounce of "Meditation" reassert the volatility of the project party. One moment we commune in sweat and movement, the next we stand in swift, silent communion over broken bodies. "We Will Never Die" and the album's capstone cut, "Pray Everyday (Survivor's Guilt)," are more sober reflections of the artist's proximity to death. On the first, GoldLink considers the ways the streets have changed kids from one generation to another: "Kids now can't fight no more / They just gun you down outta fear." "Pray Everyday" finds the artist winding back to Ciscero's initial verse, both mourning the relationship he and his parents never had and realizing that he did receive all that he needed to be successful: "And momma gave him momma slave and now her son is getting paid / And papa was a rolling stone, now his son on Rolling Stone / And all I said was shit."
On these tracks, GoldLink's delivery invokes a quiet vitality that only constant dealings with death can instill. His proximity frees him up to engage with mortality in a way that feels real — even if the stories aren't all his own. The stories themselves are constructs, built on the trust between artist and sound, and they honor a city touched by death's skeletal finger. The spoken (or unspoken) misogyny that permeates many of his hood tales can test that trust. Thankfully, even when we don’t agree with the lyrics, the body agrees with the record’s sonic arguments. At What Cost is an album that knows we unearth our true selves in dance, that we express more through our bodies than we do in our words, that we defy death by staying in a liminal space of transcendence and awareness. In the trauma expelled in our sweat, we raise the dead and mend the dying. GoldLink keeps us engaged in movement, enthralled in mortality.