GoldLink Reveals How His D.C. Roots Shaped His Debut Album 'At What Cost'

Goldlink performs at la Bellevilloise on Sept. 25, 2016 in Paris.
Frédéric Ragot/Getty Images

Goldlink performs at la Bellevilloise on Sept. 25, 2016 in Paris. 

"I discovered a lot about myself in the city," rapper GoldLink says of Washington, D.C. "When I started soul-searching, I tapped into the old me and what I grew up around. I learned a lot about myself, and it really made me appreciate my upbringing."

Since the March 24 release of the 23-year-old’s major label debut album, At What Cost, every particular of its creation remains fresh in his mind. That’s because its origin is bound to his own: Both are products of the D.C. metropolitan area. Where his 2014 mixtape The God Complex and 2015’s therapeutic And After That, We Didn’t Talk album slowly unveil details about an artist who once obscured his face during performances, At What Cost (released via RCA Records) reveals more about D’Anthony Carlos by exploring the place that birthed him.

Peppered with nods to various neighborhoods, party vignettes, snippets from the 1998 HBO documentary Thug Life in D.C., and audio footage of Dan Rather reporting former -- and still beloved -- D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s indictment, At What Cost is an intricate look inside the Capital Beltway. But it’s more specific than insular: The area’s culture is exalted through GoldLink’s perpetual self-discovery.

Prior to GoldLink’s Coachella debut, he spoke with Billboard about his love for D.C., his personal evolution, and the continuous At What Cost narrative.

The album begins with "Opening Credit," and feels cinematic in general. The DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area is a character as much as it is a setting. Was that intentional?

Yeah, it was. With "Opening Credit," we were trying to establish a certain tone and put people in a specific mood.

Almost all of the album’s features are DMV artists -- Ciscero, Kokayi, Wale, Shy Glizzy, Brent Faiyaz, Kelow LaTesha, April George, and the PG County Queen herself, Mya. How long did it take you to assemble this cast of local talent?

Honestly, it happened naturally. It wasn’t even something I was trying to plan, but the area got first priority because I wanted to showcase the talent we have. But it all came together naturally, because I created the album in D.C., so a lot of those artists were at my dispense.

Your last project was really about you; this one is moreso about D.C. Did you do that remind people or assert that you’re from here?

[Pauses.] Yeah….well, nah, because n---as knew what it was. At What Cost is about me as well, it’s just that I painted a bigger picture that anyone who’s from the city can relate to. It’s just another extension of me.

Over the past year, I noticed that you’ve made several semi-random appearances at concerts throughout D.C. You would literally just pop up and perform at other people’s shows. Was that done to show that successful people should still be both visible and accessible in their hometowns?

Yeah, and that was also just me being genuinely interested in the city’s talent. I really wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t want to be the guy who left and then heard about it through word of mouth -- I wanted to see it for myself. I just wanted to keep giving people bursts of hope, so I would come through, talk to people, kick it with them -- which I think is a good and important to do.

Do you worry that the level of accessibility will get to you? Because you’re evolving and growing, but there are some things about home and some people who will never change. Do you ever think you’ll outgrow certain things about it?

I’m afraid of that. On one hand, I’m in denial -- and I don’t know if that’s just me being optimistic. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to outgrow the city. But then part of me is like, "Well maybe you will…" Maybe when it’s time for you to move on and prepare for the next chapter of your life, you’ll have to leave the city to do that.

Kelow’s prayer on "Pray Everyday" is basically the album’s outro, but it’s also used at the beginning of the "Crew" video. Was that decision made to set the tone for the album from a promotional angle?

Yeah, I thought it would be something cool for fans to recognize. Like, "Wow, that was at the end of the album." It’s a cool connection to make, and with the "Crew" video, it was the beginning of the narrative I wanted to paint -- and I’m still painting as we speak -- for the album.

Why did you choose D.C. circa 2006 as the video’s setting?

Because that was the start of the go-go era I came to know, love, and will always remember. 2006 or 2007 through 2011 is really when it was really poppin’ for my generation. It’s a vivid memory of when the city was electrified for us.

It also gave you the opportunity to showcase some of the fashion. But I’ll be honest -- I’m wondering why you didn’t include a scene with the classic go-go photobooth picture?

Keep in mind that the narrative isn’t even finished.

Fair. So is the title, At What Cost, a reference to D.C. in its current state?

It is. But, indirectly, it’s a statement about everything going on right now. At What Cost means so many things: go-gos were shut down for our good, but at what cost? A lot of kids died at the go-go, but at what cost? A lot of communities came together, and a lot of them fell apart, but at what cost? I chose the title because it’s the broadest idea to explain the album’s concept.