Emotional pain is said to trigger the best art. When that agony comes in the form of a shattered relationship, a deluge of creativity can accompany the outpouring of feelings. The ugliest breakups can rouse the best music.
In 1978, Marvin Gaye sarcastically dubbed his post-divorce album “Here, My Dear” after grudgingly handing over half of its royalties to his ex-wife. Thirty years later, Kanye West took his first dramatic musical detour with “808s & Heartbreak,” drowning the loss of his mother and a split from his then-fiancee in sorrow and Auto-Tune. In 2012, Nas released “Life Is Good,” his strongest work in years, which followed his highly publicized divorce from singer Kelis. Each of those albums was created by men at different stages, in their 30s, in the wake of breakups.
D.C. rapper GoldLink flies nowhere near the heights of those luminaries, but the 22-year-old did choose a soured relationship as inspiration for his debut album. Except, the one covered in GoldLink’s “And After That, We Didn’t Talk” began before he was GoldLink, when he was just 16-year-old D’Anthony Carlos.
GoldLink’s critical moment arrived when most teenagers are sliding into the driver’s seat of a car for the first time. As Gaye, West, Nas and others have proved, emotional pain can be arresting well beyond one’s formative years. But with “And After That, We Didn’t Talk,” GoldLink tackles the idea that it can have cascading effects when it comes in the developmental stage of life, when a lack of experience makes things feel more intense.
“I was young, I had just [started at] a new school, and I didn’t really talk much,” he explained. “I’m not really moved by certain things, and I think she was the first thing that moved me.”
After four years that GoldLink describes as “very on and off,” the romance finally ended. Relationships change people. On rapper Slick Rick’s melancholy 1988 standout “Teenage Love,” he noted that even when high school relationships fizzle, it is “hard to turn back to the person who you were.” For a young GoldLink, these confused feelings sent him stumbling.
“I was always thinking like, ‘Oh, she got a new boyfriend? . . . I’m about to go do this and if I start getting money, she’s gonna be mad,’ ” he admitted. “I was willing to get money by any means necessary, which would lead to me selling drugs . . . So it went from me trying to impress a girl to me getting into a lot of s--- with gang violence, and then me playing with guns or really selling drugs, which got me into other things. It got deeper and deeper, but it all stemmed from her. But then it became something completely different — it wasn’t even about her anymore.”
Despite the poor decisions it inspired, the breakup helped GoldLink find himself. Searching for a constructive coping strategy, he found an outlet in music after graduating in 2011 from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria.
When his debut mixtape “The God Complex” was released in April 2014, fans and critics were impressed by its energy and the risks that it took. It opened with the charming sway of “Ay Ay” and closed with “When I Die,” a morose exploration of mortality. In between, he draped an off-kilter rhyme scheme over a frenetic combination of dance music and allusions to ’90s hip-hop and R&B, popularizing the contagious “future bounce” subgenre fathered by producer Lakim. The project was daring, but it lacked direction.
“I was young, black and angry in America, so there weren’t a lot of things I felt like talking about aside from how angry I was and how confident I was in myself,” he said. “It was a time capsule of where I was in my life, and I’m just not there anymore.”
For “After That,” he allowed himself to be a little more unguarded.
“It was always something I brushed under the rug,” he said of his broken relationship. “I never really talked about it or thought about how it [inspired] all the things I went through in my life. Then I took time being on the road . . . and just sat there and thought about everything. The more you reflect, the more you reach into yourself.”
The album closes with the reflective calm of “See I Miss,” which is almost wistful in its serenity. Both verses are packed with honesty, including a discussion of his own role in the relationship’s demise. On the chorus, GoldLink exposes his vulnerability while crooning like a “Brown Sugar”-era D’Angelo.
Legendary producer Rick Rubin helped GoldLink excavate those feelings. Impressed by “The God Complex,” Rubin — known for offering his guidance to artists including Adele, Jay Z and Johnny Cash — reached out to the young rapper. “I think his job is to either unlock the potential that you have or keep whatever got you [here] or got you attention to the point that you’re successful in place,” GoldLink said. This steered him toward confronting his past and learning from it.
“You finally understand what you did wrong — I think it’s hard for a man to actually admit what is wrong with him,” GoldLink said. “Looking back, I made my mistakes and I understand and learned from them. You can hear it in the sounds that I used and you can hear it in the content.”
Kimble is a freelance writer.