The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GoldLink’s ‘At What Cost’ documents a D.C. that’s disappearing. Here’s how the album came together.

District native and rapper GoldLink has crafted a musical collage about the city on his latest album “At What Cost.” (Tommy Francis)

Ask anyone about Brooklyn or Oakland and words like “gentrification” and “hipsters” will inevitably sneak into the conversation. In the District, those terms are overheard on the Metro and in the coffee shops that line U Street — which generations ago was proudly pegged Black Broadway. What does one do when the place they’ve called home transforms into something unrecognizable? If you’re D.C. rapper GoldLink, you make an album about it.

“At What Cost” is a portrait of a District that is slowly disappearing. It’s a radiant inside joke shared with a world of outsiders, the intangible parts of the onetime Chocolate City set to music. GoldLink called on friends young and old, from all over the DMV and beyond to tell the story. The album includes appearances from Shy Glizzy (from 37th Street in Southeast) and up-and-comer Lil Dude (from Prince George’s Riverdale neighborhood), a combo representative for bridging stylistic and geographical gaps. Their voices represent the narratives that gentrification silences and the oft-forgotten neighborhoods perpetually at risk of erasure.

Past generations of D.C. hip-hop are also present: GoldLink, along with the promising Ciscero, shares album space with Wale, who broke out nearly a decade ago, and Kokayi, who is among the earliest rhymers who took a chance on rap in the ’90s when go-go still had a stronghold in the city. A similar dynamic exists among the featured singers with Mya, a veteran product of the city’s R&B legacy, appearing alongside the rising standout April George of the local duo April+VISTA. Each contributor represents a bit of the District’s past, present and future, smaller parts of a vast tapestry.

“I feel like we’re long overdue for our story to be told,” GoldLink said. “If it doesn’t happen now, then everything we had is going to be gone, and no one will ever know about it — it’ll be like a lost city.”

Many artists have paid homage to the District by interpolating distinct go-go rhythms and instruments into their music. But GoldLink opted to capture his home town a different way, by using the people, places, energy and, perhaps most evident, the language. “At What Cost” — which was recorded locally at Cue Studios in Falls Church, Va. — is filled with the DMV’s slang and references to its staples. Terms like “kill moe” and “leggin’,” coupled with mentions of cuffed jeans and neighborhoods getting “stamped,” may seem incidental to the uninitiated but give the album an air of authenticity that can’t be manufactured.

The Washington Post spoke to GoldLink and many of his collaborators on “At What Cost” who talked about how this document of the city came together.

I. The Meetup

GoldLink: Everyone has different experiences in the DMV. I'm an Uptown baby, but I grew up in Maryland and then I moved to Virginia. Some people live on the South Side their whole life. There's different quadrants, and I can't really tell the whole story. I wanted to get different perspectives and different people sharing their story on one platform.

Kokayi: I think for him to [include different generations] was a great move because it's so necessary. As the demographics of the city change, there's a lot of history that can easily be pushed aside and left in the margins of the overall narrative of being a D.C. musician.

People don’t talk about Stinky Dink or Nonchalant or Questionmark Asylum or the importance of Junk Yard [Band] being on Def Jam. . . . There were a bunch of groups that happened in the city that made it cool for people to be able to rap. For him now to say, “I recognize the OGs in the game, I know who that is and I want them on my album,” for me felt like this could be the beginning of a really good dialogue to happen for people who have been doing this for a while.

April George: We did a lot of soul-searching and historical digging, we shared stories with each other in the studio, we studied the musical history of the area, and we applied each of our unique perspectives to our findings to help shape "At What Cost" into what it is now.

Mya: [We're] from the same area, but we haven't even met yet. We were on two different sides of the country when the collab happened. I'm just happy to rep our city with some realness and positive vibes combined.

Obii Say (executive producer): My role was just kind of watching and orchestrating. I'm omnipresent all through it. We talk about it all the time, but there's a lot of layers to the city. I feel like everyone brings their own thing to it. The album is for D.C., and it's a platform to start to give insight to something you can't really put a finger on.

II. The Party

GoldLink: It's almost like the purpose I serve is kind of the main character, but also a fly on the wall, because the main character is all of us. I left bits and pieces of me as far as the spots — like "pulled up to the Rita spot," I remember everyone used to go to Rita's [Italian Ice] on a Friday after school. That was the move.

A run through some of the album’s tracks . . .

Javon Gant (engineer) on "Opening Credit": I asked GoldLink to send me a bunch of audio clips of things he felt represented D.C. It's a whole lot of chopping and splicing of random sounds. . . . What I was really trying to do was expound upon what his overall vision was. He constantly wanted to throw people off balance. He constantly wanted you to go left and then shift right. I wanted to set the tone and put you in this place of uncertainty and uneasiness.

Ciscero on "Same Clothes As Yesterday": GoldLink was really confident in me. I was, like, this album is tight, let me not start it off with a slum verse. He was more confident than I was. I felt honored. One thing I've been trying to do with my art is make sure I represent where I'm from well. I wasn't trying to sound as Maryland as I could, but at the same time, I understand the importance of being a reflection of the area so that people can champion you and be like, "yeah, he's a good representation of where we're from."

Kokayi on "Hands On Your Knees": I was just in the studio and then one day, he pulled up the track. He was, like, "You know what I really need? That old-school flavor . . . you think you can do that?"It wasn't anything written down. Thinking back to being at any party or go-go — you know they do the whole shout when people come into the room? That's what it was. You always shout out the people that walk in the room without making them feel uncomfortable but making sure they got their shine.

Mya on "Roll Call": They say if you can survive in New York, you can make it anywhere. I feel like if you can make it in the DMV, you can make it anywhere. It's a different type of beast. "Roll Call" explains that things aren't peachy keen or easy where we're from, but disowning it is not an option because we don't exist without it.

When I heard the music, it was completely opposite of what I’d expected coming from a rapper and one from D.C. It was reminiscent of a Michael Jackson “Off the Wall” arrangement with him flowing overtop.

April on "Parable of a Rich Man": To me, the second half of the song ("In this world, mother, no one can love me / In this world, they do not know how to love me . . . ") is a commentary on the struggle of growing up black in the DMV, and in his case, growing up as a black man in D.C. It's so important because it reveals what "forces of evil" he may be alluding to and tells the story of someone reckoning with said forces — the low expectations society has for the black community, for black males, the dangers and stresses of city life and the destructive claws of gentrification.

Brent Faiyaz (singer) on "Crew": Even though it's a fun, danceable party record, it has moments in the verses that will tell you it wasn't easy to get here. There's a lot of craziness that goes on out there, so if you know a little about the culture you'd know that to be able to come from where we come from and make it far enough to share music at this scale — we're in a really fortunate space.

III. The Reflection

April: This album provides a deep gaze into what D.C. has to offer, but it also just scratches the surface. There's a vast community of creatives, especially black creatives, who have world-class talents to offer, many of whom had a hand in crafting this project. It's time for us to be acknowledged, for us to be heard.

Ciscero: I think it represents the DMV well. I think what it really represents is the essence. He didn't have a go-go song playing throughout to be like "look, this album's about the city." He's got the essence of the people in it, which is really what go-go is. Go-go was just a reflection of the people, and that's what the album sounds like.

Obii Say: There's two sides to the album — there's a bright side and a dark side. You can't tell whether it's a dark album with bright spots or a bright album with dark spots. But that's everyday around here.

Kokayi: It definitely broke new ground. And because the Chocolate City is no more, you need to really listen to this joint because he's telling the story of why it's no more. He's giving you pieces of why it's no more.

Javon Gant: I think this album is the most accurate representation of D.C. that I've heard so far released on a major scale. From the lingo to the attitude, it just summed up what the city was about. I think it's very important because a lot of people from D.C. have done a lot of great things, but they've always played the background. Or they'll go do something great and move on to some other city, and you just happen to figure out they're from D.C. I think it's hugely impactful that someone has given this accurate presentation of D.C. — like, by the way, I'm here. I live here. I am here. I think it opens the door for everyone else.