If you listen to rap music as closely as it deserves to be listened to, you probably remember when you first heard Goonew — just not exactly when. The 24-year-old Maryland rapper had a gift for smearing time, phrasing his rhymes slightly in front of the beat, making the present moment feel weightless and imprecise. It gave his music an enchanted atemporality, but for Goonew, it all felt perfectly natural. “That’s just how I rap,” he said in 2019. “I feel how I feel. It’s just regular.”
Obviously, “regular” for Goonew — who was shot in District Heights on Friday evening, his manager confirmed, and died hours later — wasn’t regular for the rest of us. He felt how he felt, putting his words where they needed to go, feeling the clock on his own terms, reminding us that there are multiple ways to experience this one-way push through life. As a rapper, he seemed to understand that time is not uniform, and he proved it with astonishing style, his nuanced flows becoming closely associated with the DMV, influencing rappers in neighboring Zip codes and overseas.
It all happened fast. Goonew claimed to have started rapping in 2017, and within a year he had become innovative and prolific, dropping a glut of songs across a series of albums — “Certified Goon,” “Beware of Goon,” “Homicide Boyz,” “Big 64,” “Goonrich Urkel” and more — that recounted a variety of nightmare scenarios with dreamlike cool. Saturated with mood, his verses depicted a world of menace and paranoia, but where mortality was somehow negotiable. On the eerie, curtain-raising title track of his outstanding 2019 album “Back From Hell,” he rapped with composure and dash, declaring that he had already “died twice.”
When we describe music as “timeless,” we’re usually talking about durability, suggesting that a particular song or sound transcends the fickle fashions of the day. Goonew made timeless music in a different way. It very much belonged to its moment, but what it did in that moment felt like a little metaphysical denial of time itself. Listen to how his syllables threaten to collide like a Beltway pileup during the intensifying crescendo of “Stain.” Listen to how he sounds like he’s talking over himself alongside Atlanta’s Lil Yachty and his go-to collaborator Lil Dude on “Homicide Boat.” Listen to him swap brags with Lil Gray on “Positive Goon,” his words as slippery as whispers, refusing to fully obey the rhythm’s consensus ticktock.
By making time feel different, Goonew made life feel different. He deserved more of both.
An earlier version of this story misidentified one of Goonew's album titles. It is "Homicide Boyz," not "Homicide Boys."