As it currently stands, the world of hip-hop revolves more or less around three musical nexuses: LA, Chicago, and Atlanta. King Kendrick and his TDE label reign supreme on the west coast, Chance and friends have brought an underground scene to the surface on the South Side, and a collection of trap-cohorts led by Future, Migos and Young Thug have placed ATL squarely in the spotlight. Second tier scenes exist, as well: Brooklyn’s Joey Badass represents a solid New York contingent, while Drake has put Toronto on the map as a veritable cultural center. However, Washington DC, a city lacking the hip-hop legacy of a city like New York and, apart from Wale, a high profile rap delegate, has never really been considered a member of either tier. GoldLink is an artist trying to challenge that designation.
The 23 year old rapper is DMV through and through, and on his new album, At What Cost, the vicinity of the nation’s capital is front and center. The project is full of shoutouts and references to local neighborhoods, and even stylistically reflects the city’s musical roots, as GoldLink and other DMV artists weave elements of go-go into the album’s sonic fabric. The result is a definitive aesthetic of locality; GoldLink conveys a sense of pride in his hometown and an intimate knowledge of the area–both its merits and its dangers–that only a son of DC could possess.
The album begins with “Opening Credit,” a dark, distorted cacophony that sounds like a city soundscape fed through a synthetic audio processor. The nightmarish intro ends with foreboding and an anonymous voice: “They don’t stop til’ all of us dead, til’ the whole District of Columbia go up in gunsmoke.”
The rest of the project is peppered with acknowledgements of GoldLink’s own experiences with gun violence and gang culture in DC. This is not to say the album is grimly political or overly morbid in nature; in fact, most songs celebrate less serious pleasures of everyday life: a party, a lunch date, a summertime fling. “Hands on Your Knees,” MC’d by DC musician Kokayi, plops the listener right in the middle of a go-go show, amidst funky rhythms and characteristic call and response interactions between entertainer and audience members.
However, just like life in parts of Ward 7 and 8, the threat of gunshots is always in close proximity to a quotidian existence. This reality is illustrated on “Meditation,” a groovy KAYTRANADA-produced track that ends with a familiar scene: a party cut short by gunfire.
The album remains undeterred, however, segueing directly into the ebullient “Roll Call,” a heartfelt homage to GoldLink’s hometown. “No matter where I go around the world, it’s back to DC,” declares the refrain. “No matter where I go, I’m always gonna go back–’cause it made me.” As GoldLink explains in an interview with The Fader, his music is synonymous with his city. At What Cost is like a series of snapshots of his home: a beautiful girl he met in Fairmount Heights, a fistfight in Landover, a nighttime portrait of “U Street poppin’ off.” The music video for “Crew” shows GoldLink surrounded by friends in a neighborhood park while fellow DC rapper Shy Glizzy shouts out “Southeast.” The video reflects the artist’s fiercely loyal, almost insular mentality; while some artists might choose to shoot videos in exotic locales, GoldLink and his peers cannot fathom their art physically detached from their roots.
The album is replete with DMV imagery, but perhaps its most powerful allusion is auditory. At the conclusion of “Parable of a Rich Man,” one can hear the unmistakable sound of a Metro train pulling into the station. Aural memories are a funny thing; often just hearing a sound you’ve heard hundreds of times before can evoke a specific place, a specific time, or in this case, an entire city. The effect of this short audio clip represents exactly what GoldLink achieves with At What Cost. It gives the listener an intimate and deeply personal glimpse of life in the DMV. And, more notably, it adds DC to the collective aural memory of hip-hop fans everywhere, effectively putting the district on the radar for the foreseeable future.