April 10, 2017

goldlink

Luke Benjamin is immortal thanks to a well-rounded diet of bagels and avocados.

“Fuck around and die, hell yeah / We will never die, hell yeah.” 

So starts GoldLink’s “We Will Never Die,” an anxious requiem for would-be enemies. The feigned invincibility of the second bar feels insulatinb, the sort of boast made to deny what is inevitably true. A paradox that seems essential when death lurks like an unwelcome neighbor knocking at your door when the music rises too loud.

Immortality is a fitting subject for a rapper whose debut was The God Complex, a project that was not so much a christening as a tantalizing glimpse at rap modernism—all elasticity and melody, equal parts house and hip-hop, an intersection between Fat Trel and Kaytranada. God Complex depicted a youthful invulnerability told via shrouded vignettes of stick-ups and slick talk. It felt detached from its protagonist through its lack of specific narrative. At this early stage, GoldLink was more stylistic virtuoso than full-fledged artist, only just unmasked past the cyan-backed chain that was his SoundCloud icon.

He was the rapping extension of the Soulection ethos—dynamic, fluid, and variable, but characterized more by a Future Bounce sound than anything else—still a flat character behind a tribal face mask, surface relationships, and braggadocio. Early GoldLink was an apocryphal figure, intentionally shadowed, beholden only to a few markers of identity: a moniker, hometown, and apparent stylistic direction. With each successive release, GoldLink the artist—and in turn his origins—has come into clearer relief. His DMV home taking center stage, a provincial lead actor.

If And After That, We Didn’t Talk was the logical conclusion of GoldLink’s Future Bounce period, then At What Cost is the necessary departure. Still inflected with Soulection color but amalgamated with so much more. Ironically, as GoldLink’s stature has increased, his sense of regional grounding has too, as he’s found compelling specificity in his DC and Maryland roots. At What Cost is comprehensively of the DMV—parts go-go and Shy Glizzy, Kokamoe bars and Landover.

At What Cost follows a crooked path through the sprawling tri-district diaspora with impressive clarity, taking detours to pay homage to lost relationships and grab Fast Gourmet burgers. The first third of the album is mostly hot summer days, liquor lacquered floors and infatuation, the sunny side of warm weather painted in brilliant yellows and bright blues. It’s perhaps darkly humorous that the album turns on a record titled “Summatime,” after which the relationships grow paranoid and ninety degree days break into fears for play turned gunplay.

It’s all foreshadowed by the discordant and unsettling intro, “Opening Credit,” which belies the insouciant levity of the proceeding five records. Even at its most vibrant, darkness always creeps into corners. On the alpha-male masquerade “Same Clothes As Yesterday,” GodLink drops a searing tercet to close the second verse: “No no feel no type of way, momma said you better pray/For these little D.C. boys, you might get hit with a stray /Congress parked at MLK, they’ll just give us any day.”

From this same wellspring emerges “We Will Never Die,” weary from one too many lost friends, ringing off warning shots while lamenting bullet holes in grade school bodies. It’s a dirge for still warm corpses that carries the full weight of brown and black lives lost in the immense shadow of the Washington Monument. The song itself is an examination of the conditions that make young men immune to this senseless massacre, feeling bulletproof while strolling through streets littered with shell casings. The juxtaposition of political power-bargaining and double cup chaos is jarring, and what makes GoldLink’s DC so compelling. Take, for example, “Kokamoe Freestyle”: Sorry homie, you know we not friends, it’s all for politics/Politics, never get to see who really runnin’ shit.”

“We Will Never Die” is the emotional and narrative essence of At What Cost, the most thorough mission statement of Goldlink the artist. Tough the track leads with the monotone blunt edge of Lil Dude, “Them choppers, they come supersizin’, took a couple lives / I got a teardrop on my face but I will never cry,” the record is unmistakably Link, the highpoint of a mostly brilliant four song suite that closes out the album. Even if the man proves to be only corporeal, GoldLink’s words and rhythms may prove to be more immortal than his flesh.