Washington, DC, as native GoldLink knows it, is disappearing —on his studio debut, At What Cost (out now on RCA) the MC's mission is to preserve the remnants of his hometown's culture. "My goal is to avenge the city," he tells Exclaim! "I feel like the city needs a hero it can see. If I'm everybody's hero from Canada all the way down to Australia, but I'm not able to come home? Then I failed. It was for nothing."
The villain in GoldLink's hero story is gentrification. Rapid "revitalization" of DC's neighbourhoods and the demographic changes that come with it are threatening the musical culture and identity. "When I was growing up, DC was [predominantly] black. It was really the Chocolate City. Everybody was outside; we would open up the sprinklers and all the kids would play in it. Go-go was thriving and the go-go spots were hot. There was a togetherness and family culture that came with all that," says GoldLink.
"But now, you can go down the same street that I grew up on and it just doesn't look the same anymore. Everything is refurbished and super high-end. There are unfamiliar faces. There's no real identity now. And it's hard to feed off of something that's not there. It affects the music because you start to kinda take the soul out of it."
That soul is what GoldLink tries to capture on At What Cost. The album features themes of life, love, death, kinship and survivor's guilt; narratives that he seasons with references to neighbourhoods, slang and people that only DC insiders can appreciate. Nearly all of the album's featured guests are fellow DMV artists (Shy Glizzy, Mya and Wale to name a few), and throughout the record, GoldLink flirts with elements of go-go, DC's signature funk sub-genre that was founded when the area's black population was nearing its highest. The tinny keys on "Have You Seen That Girl"; the raw, makeshift percussion on "Kokamoe Freestyle"; or the vibrant, vintage feel of "Hands on Your Knees" allow D.C.'s spirit and the familial essence of go-go to cinematically unfold.
"In order for me to sell D.C., I have to have people understand us," says GoldLink. "Kokamoe would really freestyle on the X2 bus. Or you'd see someone who was homeless who could really sing. We had go-go and it was so cultural and communal. The sound of the city was so unique."
Although the album is a homage to the District, GoldLink approaches it in a way that allows out-of-towners to participate in, rather than just observe, the action. The production still encapsulates the future bounce sound his fans first fell in love with on The God Complex. And anyone from any region can relate to the thrill of new love, the shock and sorrow of sudden death and the battle between good and evil that the main character experiences on At What Cost. "I tried to have this underlying them of tribalism," says GoldLink. "In a love story, like 'Herside Story' or 'Have You seen that Girl,' there's a feeling that you get. I tried to capture universal emotions and display them through DC."
Many artists dream of escaping their hood and shedding their regional identity altogether, while others are so fiercely loyal to their hometown that their music remains too regional to ever achieve crossover appeal. But GoldLink is thriving at the midpoint. His star is on a rise and his fan base is expanding, but he approaches his craft with a "DC first" mindset, remaining as present as he can in order to keep himself grounded. Holding on to the sense of community he felt when growing up fuels the creative spark that drives his sound.
"You can take all the houses away, but you can't take the people away. That's going to live forever," says GoldLink. "I'm still in the hood. I'm still stationed there, I keep my ear there. I always take DC with me. And I always come back home."