For the longest time, Washington, DC didn’t really have rap music. Or it had rap music, but if you weren’t from there, you wouldn’t know. Its rappers were underground figures, local heroes, and they never broke out of the borders of the city and its surrounding urban sprawl. What DC had instead was go-go, the raw, percussive, almost tribal funk variant that thrived as an entirely local phenomenon for decades. Go-go was, and is, music that depends on physical proximity, on actually being there in the room when it’s being made. On record, it’s almost always sounded tinny and small and repetitive and obnoxious. DC radio stations always worked live go-go tapes into rotation, and I spent years as a kid thinking I couldn’t stand the music because I only heard the muffled, flattened, distant-echo version on the radio. (In Baltimore, we’d listen to DC rap radio and complain whenever they’d play go-go. In DC, as I understand it, they’d listen to Baltimore rap radio and complain whenever they’d play Baltimore club music. That little dance between the two cities kept going forever.) Live, however, go-go was, and is, an absolutely joyous spectacle, a frantic burst of drums and horns and congas and half-rapped exhortations that sounded and looked like nothing else. The old early-’80s DC hardcore bands used to play with go-go bands sometimes, and in DC, you’ll still find old punks who think that go-go should’ve become the global phenomenon, not rap.
DC, of course, has a rich black-music history that extends way, way beyond go-go. Duke Ellington was from there. So was Marvin Gaye. A ton of R&B singers have called the city home: William DeVaughn, Johnny Gill, Shai, Ginuwine, Mya, Tank, Amerie, Raheem DeVaughn. Parliament immortalized the city on “Chocolate City.” Bad Brains — black men who didn’t make black music but whose impact across the spectrum remains titanic — are from there. For a brief and glorious moment, the producer Rich Harrison found ways to translate go-go polyrhythms and regal soul-music excitement into mainstream R&B hits like Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” and Amerie’s “1 Thing.” And about a decade ago, DC got its first national breakout rap star. Wale had a messy ascendance, starting out as a hipster with go-go roots and dance-club aspirations before turning into a Seinfeld-referencing conscious rapper and then reaching his final form as the guy on Maybach Music who was most likely to launch into a spoken-word soliloquy. After Wale, the rappers to come out of DC were larger-than-life street-hero types like bellowing bulldozer Fat Trel and chirping head-knocker Shy Glizzy. Those guys were more in line with the District’s rap tastes, where guys like Scarface and Gucci Mane were always able to command huge audiences. And then came GoldLink. I’m still not sure what to make of GoldLink.
GoldLink, just 24 now, emerged a few years ago with a frantic form of club-rap that he called future bounce. He put out a couple of mixtapes that didn’t really grab me; his rapping style was too choppy and indistinct, and I didn’t think the songs were there. Then, earlier this year, he released At What Cost, his first proper album, and it’s a pivot. At What Cost is both a warmly local affair, a love letter to a city and its music, and a staggeringly ambitious one. In one 48-minute album, GoldLink has pulled in as many strains of DC’s black-music history as he can. The album has silky R&B and go-go deep in its DNA, and the fusion between those sounds and the house-inflected rap that was always GoldLink’s style is just gloriously seamless. (It helps, certainly, that Kaytranada, a master of organic house fusions, produced a bunch of tracks, but the album works for reasons that are bigger than Kaytranada.) The album is full of guests, and those guests come from different eras of the city’s music. Wale is on there, and so is Mya, and so is Kokayi, an underground rapper from the District’s lost pre-Wale era. They share space with younger artists like Shy Glizzy and the singer April George. All of them make sense together. All of them sound like they belong on the same continuum.
It took At What Cost months to grow on me. The album’s textured, melodically rich sound isn’t exactly built to grab your attention. Instead, it’s got a fluidly funky sound. It doesn’t bang; it breathes. But more to the point, GoldLink himself is a bit of a problem. He’s just not a distinctive rapper. Nothing he says jumps out with any sort of immediacy, and even when I’m listening hard, he has a way of blurring into the track’s background. He also likes to use DC slang that’s near-impenetrable for outsiders like me, which is crucial to the album’s project but which still has a way of turning his voice into static if you’re not fully attuned. Still, he’s made an album that’s both uncommonly pleasant and endlessly listenable. It’s the sort of album where, especially on a summer afternoon, you’ll find yourself throwing it on when you’re not sure what to listen to. One DC influence who’s not on the album might be Oddisee, the great DC producer who once made a great mostly-instrumental mood-rap album and named it after DC’s Rock Creek Park. GoldLink’s got a lot to say about gentrification — the force that’s pushing DC’s generations-deep black population into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs where GoldLink himself grew up — and about the trauma that comes from growing up around violence. And even if GoldLink’s words don’t resonate with you, his flow is still a malleable instrument, one that skitters and jumps over these relaxed, soulful productions.
And then there’s “Crew,” one of the most perfect rap songs that anyone has released in 2017. “Crew” doesn’t sound like an anthem, but it works as one anyway. The production sighs and twinkles. It never explicitly nods toward go-go, but I still hear echoes of the genre in its full, cluttered sound. The production comes from Teddy Walton, the Memphis native who did Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE.,” but it ends up sounding like DC anyway. The hook is calm and smooth and insinuating, and it comes from a 20-year-old Maryland singer named Brent Faiyaz. GoldLink himself lazily bats the track around like a cat lying in a sunbeam. Eventually, Shy Glizzy shows up, his nasal honk and unbridled charisma standing out starkly and contrasting beautifully with GoldLink’s own buttery baritone. “Crew” came out way back in December, and the trees in the video are all bare. But it’s a summer song through and through, and it’s been steadily building from a local hit into a national one for months now. As I’m writing this, it’s moved up to a new peak at #54 on Billboard Hot 100, and if streaming trends are anything to go on, I expect it to get a lot higher than that. This is a good thing. The world needs a song like “Crew” right now — a warm, melodic, self-assured summer jam, the kind of thing that instantly triggers nostalgia for the current moment.
Last week, RCA released an EP of “Crew” remixes, and it’s mostly pretty inessential. Gucci Mane jumps on one version of the track — “Brought the Lambo to DC so they could see me / Got Shy Glizzy with me but ain’t nothing shy about me” — and it’s fun to hear a guy who’s always been huge in DC showing up on the biggest DC song in years. There are a couple of OK-I-guess EDM remixes, too. But the remixes that actually mean something are the two go-go reimaginings, especially the one from the Backyard Band, a local institution that formed 26 years ago. GoldLink isn’t even on the Backyard Band version. Instead, it’s an eight-minute workout that fleshes out the song’s Sunday-afternoon arrangement and gives the band’s in-house rappers and singers chances to shine. It sounds like exactly what it is: decades of out-of-the-spotlight local-music history blurred all together into one smear, time compressing itself. I’m just a fan.
1. T.Y.E – “32 Lifestyle”
Absolutely ferocious gothic stress-rap from a Dallas rapper that I’ll have to pay a whole lot more attention to now. I don’t know why, but the sun-dappled lyrical realism of the video makes the song hit that much harder.
2. Joseph Chilliams – “Kale” (Feat. Noname & Supa Bwe)
Joseph Chilliams is brothers with the great young Chicago rapper Saba, so here’s another example of Chicago’s smart young kids coming up with a song full of energy and inventiveness and insight and melody. Noname in particular just shines on this.
3. KMD – “True Lightyears” (Feat. DOOM & Jay Electronica)
Back before he became MF Doom, Zev Love X was part of the group KMD with his brother DJ Subroc. The group lost its major-label contract because of controversial cover art, Subroc died after being hit by a car, and Zev eventually reinvented himself as a masked supervillain. Hard to say why DOOM is just bringing the name back now; if other past KMD members are involved, I can’t tell. But whatever; DOOM can use the name if he wants, especially if it means we get our semi-annual reminder that Jay Electronica can rap his balls off.
4. Bo Deal – “Monster” (Feat. Montana Of 300, G-Count, Twista, & Bump J)
Five of Chicago’s hardest are here to remind you that their city was nothing to fuck with back before Chief Keef was in diapers. Listen to them.
5. Moneybagg Yo – “Important”
This Memphis underground rapper just came out of nowhere and scored a #5 debut on the Billboard chart with his album — a triumph for slick, fun, unpretentious street-rap.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
top rope canadian destroyer to roger stone https://t.co/uOmLhllzOp
— Open Mike Eagle (@Mike_Eagle) August 22, 2017