No Reason To Pretend: GoldLink Finds Depth In The Groove

No Reason To Pretend is a weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.

It’s hard to listen to GoldLink without thinking about death. The DC rapper has a taste for groovy, warm sounds that conjure images of bodies in motion, but in his music bodies hit the floor just as often as they hit the dance floor. GoldLink frequently uses parties as a muse, but the parties he goes to are as likely to end in a steamy one-night stand as a grim shootout. GoldLink isn’t a realist though. His music is expressionistic, built on textures rather than contrasts, dimensions rather than contradictions.  At What Cost, his sophomore album, refines his expressionistic aesthetic even further, rendering his hometown and his worldview in vivid detail while delving further into his hectic love life.

Love can be deceptive in GoldLink’s music. On one hand, it’s utter desire and sensuality, like on “Have You Seen That Girl?” where GoldLink casually macks as beautiful women come and go. He describes women the way a food critic might detail a sumptuous dessert: curves, edges, and bite. “I was out Wak Wahler with the project boys / Lookin’ at this little fine ass joint with her French braids/ Black shades, lil’ attitude, ass wide like a lamp shade,” he raps with glee. But alongside these more lascivious vignettes he uses love as this multi-purpose glue. On “Herside Story”, generously sampling Irish rappers Hare Squead, GoldLink pledges allegiance to a lover, his city, his hitters, and himself all at once. For GoldLink love is elemental, defining relationships large and small, political and personal.

“In this world they do not know how to love me,” singer April George chants in the spooky outro on “The Parable of the Rich Man.” These lines capture both the general sentiment of the album and GoldLink’s particular alienation as a black man from Washington, D.C. I live in D.C. and many people from outside of the city have recently asked me how the presence of the Trump administration has changed the city. To their surprise, my answer has always been, “Not much.” Regardless of who’s in office, D.C. is a structurally corrupt city. The local government is circumscribed by the whims of Congress, deep segregation limits housing and job opportunities, and its unceasing influx of transient residents tend to have more interest in what the city can do for them than what they can do for the city. GoldLink is drawn to these tensions and is forthright about how they shape his worldview.

“Roll Call” might be the closest he’s ever come to a mission statement. Backed by Mýa (yes, that Mýa; she’s from D.C., actually), GoldLink takes a tour of the DMV, shouting out Benning Road, Le Pearl Ballroom, Silver Hill Road, and other local haunts. Mýa soars through the chorus, lifted by lush strings and bouncy synths courtesy of Louie Lastic, but GoldLink’s verses are purposefully down to earth. His portrait of the city is full of regular folks doing regular things: fighting, chilling, hanging, partying. GoldLink doesn’t mythologize D.C. as much as he just strolls through it, already convinced of its significance. Only a single line of the song addresses anyone from beyond its borders: “But I’ll tell what you won’t do / Bet you won’t tell these n*ggas that they better move.” It’s a boast, a threat, a declaration, and an ode all in one.

The thrill of GoldLink’s music is how effortlessly he can defuse or amplify all these anxieties. His choppy, rapid-fire flow snakes around Kaytranada’s balmy arrangements on “Meditation,” heightening the song’s subdued thump (and ratcheting up the intrinsic horniness that’s in virtually every house beat). On “Kokamoe Freestyle” he stretches his words, turning stone-cold boasts into casual flexes: “We ran so many niggas outta here / Wonder why young Linky never had a fear.” The quicksilver rapping draws you in, but the control keeps you.

And these subtle shifts aren’t limited to his flow, either. At What Cost is full of moments where songs abruptly detonate into new ideas. “Have You Seen That Girl?” melts into a glitchy stutter as it winds down, turning the song’s brimming carnality into a sludgy dread, admiration eroded into obsession. Likewise, “Some Girl” jerks from crippling wanderlust, to dark fixation, to sunny appreciation . “I just want you girl,” GoldLink snarls in a pitched-down drawl before slipping into a colorful, auto-tuned exaltation.

GoldLink once told Hot 97 that he thought of his name after watching American Pimp and wondering what his pimp name would be. Those carnal origins live on his music, and that’s its appeal. Party music often turns the party into an oasis, a moated fortress keeping all the stress and awfulness of life at the edge of the bouncer’s outstretched arm. At What Cost brings all the baggage into the party, insisting that it’s only a burden when you leave it at the door. GoldLink doesn’t make party music to escape life: he makes party music to realize life, in all its odd, disorienting detail. There’s a ghoulish hellishness to the album cover, but the more I’ve listened to this album the more I’ve noticed the cover’s gleam. Why fear death when you’ve mastered a life like this?