On the D.C. rapper's first studio album, Goldlink highlights his city but obscures his own perspective.
In an interview with the Fader just before the release of At What Cost, D.C. rapper Goldlink spoke of the album’s strong go-go funk influence, the way his words and the album’s structure and every other element is all about his city, and how the music of the album is the music of D.C. “It almost shapes us as a community and who we are. It’s like the music is the background for the entire city,” he said. And it is true that the production does invoke interesting go-go sounds, often weaving them in around straight-ahead hip-house beats, and Goldlink’s passion is more evident now than ever before. But the story of Goldlink’s city -- the ideas that make it truly unique -- don’t quite come across as fully as the artist intended.
The mood of At What Cost is fluid, starting with an ominous intro track but quickly lightening up with a trio of Kaytranada-produced tracks are more upbeat, especially “Hands on Your Knees", the most obviously go-go based track on the project and one that is completely devoid of Goldlink himself. It orbits around this kind of tone for about half the album with semi-smooth romantic jams and toe-tapping hip-house tracks but then quickly gets grittier and odd with “The Parable of the Rich Man” and “We Will Never Die". The second half is almost an entirely different narrative -- one that doesn’t necessarily seem to match Goldlink's theme.
But as a debut studio release, there is surprisingly little solo Goldlink on At What Cost. The artist himself doesn’t show up until more than two minutes in, after the intro and a full verse from Ciscero. In fact, around 10 of the 14 tracks contain prominent features. Many of them are from D.C. and the surrounding tri-state area, which bolsters the album’s city-pride mantra, but it leaves the listener feeling like it’s not really Goldlink's album. There isn’t enough of his voice to solidify that this is who he is. As a rapper who still isn’t very well known, it seems like he would want to highlight his persona. Instead, he hides for a good portion of the album.
When Goldlink does put himself forward, though, it often feels like he’s recycling well-worn material. “The Parable of the Rich Man", for example, is a track in which Goldlink has a conversation with a woman named Lucy, who represents a constant source of evil and negative influence masquerading as protection or self-preservation in the rapper’s psyche. It was a creative and interesting idea when Kendrick Lamar did it on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but when Goldlink repeats it, it’s stale and feels insincere. And the drastic switch from light and fun tracks to more aggressive ones sometimes feels forced, or as if it’s overcorrecting.
The album does work well bringing in people from the D.C. area and incorporating the go-go funk sound in interesting ways, like on “Roll Call", where the standard go-go beat is sped up and buried creatively among more layered percussion. These upbeat tracks are where Goldlink really succeeds. His love for his city comes across on “Roll Call", and his creative flows shine on “Kokamoe Freestyle", and his pop sensibility comes through on “Crew” and “Have You Seen that Girl". When the album is fun, it’s really fun, but when he tries to invoke a darker side, it just sounds unconvincing -- and does a disservice to the light he wants to shine on his city.