Having experimented with his musical stylings on two mixtapes, At What Cost, the debut album from D.C. MC D’Anthony Carlos, known by his stage name of GoldLink, seemingly seeks to find some common ground between his previous two releases. The Washington rapper’s first mixtape, The God Complex, exhibited a largely straightforward approach to hip hop, whilst nevertheless being rather eclectic with regards to the breadth of influences that went into the melting pot of ideas displayed. The MC’s second mixtape, And After That, We Didn’t Talk, was undeniably more ambitious in terms of stylistic scope, being divided between some relatively flashy electronic and jazz-based hip hop cuts and some audacious excursions into the world of neo-soul and contemporary R&B, for which the artist would try his hand at some impassioned crooning, arguably in keeping with the mixtape’s overarching narrative regarding a breakup. This mixtape divided critical opinion significantly, with many music fans, myself included, being of two minds about the project, with GoldLink’s rap-centric endeavours often being compelling, whilst his attempts at syrupy smooth soul songs fell flat as soon as the rapper opened his mouth to sing. Given that And After That, We Didn’t Talk is a mixtape, GoldLink’s tentative feel of neo-soul’s waters was understandable, but no less lacking as a result, and it would seem that the artist has learned from his mistakes, with his first full-length studio album, At What Cost, significantly reigning in the sung tracks in favour of the fundamental hip hop cuts.What is more in the style of the rapper’s two mixtapes, however, is the narrative-driven nature of his lyrical endeavours on this album, with At What Cost allegedly being a love letter of sorts to GoldLink’s home city. Ultimately, however, the lack of focus displayed on the musical side of things on And After That, We Didn’t Talk is present on this album too, instead being much more noticeable in the recurring themes across At What Cost, with a significant portion of the record either being extremely limited in advancing the narrative or genuinely obstructing its development. On the musical side of things, whilst it’s promising that GoldLink has toned down his sung performances on his first album, his flows also seem to be more limited, whilst the album’s production often conflicts with the rapper’s delivery. The result, therefore, is a project that, instead of eliciting both positive and negative reactions like his previous mixtape, largely evokes feelings of indifference over the course of its runtime.
The lack of a genuine commitment to the narrative and overall direction of At What Cost is apparent right from the onset. Following Opening Credit, a purposeless introductory track that is comprised of some sparse vocal samples and arbitrary noises, the first full-track, Same Clothes As Yesterday, kicks in, with GoldLink still nowhere to be seen, as Ciscero provides the first verse. Although Ciscero comes through with a lively performance and rides the beat impressively, his bars of braggadocio aren’t a particularly compelling start for an album that purports to apply GoldLink’s style of storytelling to a romanticisation of Washington D.C. What’s more, the fact that GoldLink’s first appearance on his own debut album is with a lacklustre, mumbled chorus after such a long wait is hardly promising. What’s arguably worse is the fact that, after Ciscero’s fiery opening verse, GoldLink’s own verse seems like a notable step-down, not to mention the fact that I picked up on at least a few lines that were borrowed from other songs. Overall, Same Clothes As Yesterday ultimately feels like an odd choice for the first song on At What Cost, and perhaps if it had appeared later on in the tracklisting, it would have been a lot more enjoyable. After all, the beat is nice and moody, and it does a good job of complementing both rapper’s deliveries, particularly GoldLink’s, in fact, considering his deep, gritty voice.
Following Same Clothes As Yesterday is a trio of songs featuring electronic DJ KAYTANDRA on production and, given the great collaboration between GoldLink and KAYTANDRA and BADBADNOTGOOD on the non-album single Fall in Love, which also featured Ciscero, I had high expectations of these being amongst the most remarkable cuts from At What Cost. Indeed, one could say that these cuts do in fact stand out in the tracklisting, but not necessarily for the best of reasons. The first of the trio, Have You Seen That Girl?, makes a poor case for a collaboration between GoldLink and KAYTANDRA compared to Fall in Love, despite the fact that both parties provide perfectly decent performances. The issue, really, is the cohesion between the two artists, as the bright, peppy vibe of the beat is quite awkward when paired with GoldLink’s rough voice. This is arguably no fault of the rapper, as, although he certainly could have altered his delivery as to suit the instrumental more appropriately, his style of rapping simply doesn’t seem that compatible with the bouncy beat provided by KAYTANDRA. This is certainly a shame, as the production itself is very strong, it’s just unfortunate that it could have been far stronger with a different MC spitting over it. Moreover, Have You Seen This Girl? is incredibly limited in the ways in which it adds to the supposed narrative of At What Cost, with GoldLink occasionally referencing D.C. neighbourhoods, like Wahler Place and Benning Terrace, but these are all simply mentioned in passing as the rapper chronicles his experiences of chasing girls. One could perhaps make the argument that, in mentioning the projects of the city, GoldLink is including this philandering lifestyle as part of his relationship with the city, but Washington is hardly integrated into these stories, rather it simply serves as the setting when the rapper establishes the scene in the first line of each verse. Similar themes recur across the other love songs on At What Cost, such as Herside Story, which, again, simply uses the capital as a backdrop for GoldLink’s stories of pursuing women. Moreover, although the artist’s style of delivery isn’t particularly at odds with the beat on this track — at least not in the same way as it is on Have You Seen This Girl? — he nevertheless doesn’t pull through with a compelling performance given the subject matter of hooking up again with an ex-partner. Indeed, GoldLink’s voice sounds as grainy and borderline monotonous as it usually does, which is hardly conducive to a track on which he is attempting to woo a girl with some passionate, sentimental bars. The exact same issue appears on Meditation, the last of the three tracks to feature production credits from KAYTANDRA, who comes through with another impressive beat, but GoldLink’s attempt at seducing a girl with some sensuous lyrics comes across as almost goofy when delivered with his rough inflection.
There are most definitely some good ideas conveyed on At What Cost, but few of them are related to GoldLink, which certainly isn’t encouraging for a first full-length studio effort. A large portion of the album’s stand-out moments arise from either a particularly impressive feature or some solid production. Summatime, for instance, sees Radiant Children come through with a gritty, jazz-tinged beat that complements GoldLink’s flow far better than most of the instrumentals on the record, but this is arguably overshadowed by the verse provided by fellow D.C. rapper Wale, who, at one point, uses the same flow as GoldLink, which just highlights how better suited for this cut he is than the artist himself. Roll Call is another cut that stands out for a particularly infectious instrumental, which sees a really successful meeting of a hard, heavy beat and meaty bass with some soaring strings that pop up at various points on the track, with the chorus provided by Mýa also being a highlight amongst the sung performances on the record. Unfortunately, the high of Mýa’s soulful performance is short-lived, with the very next track, The Parable of the Rich Man, opening with an absolutely grating vocal performance from GoldLink, which is even more jarring when paired with the off-kilter beat over which he is singing. It’s hard to really even judge the production on this track, as it comes across as a beat that an equally left-field rapper would spit over, but GoldLink’s awful singing, which is as out of time as it is out of tune, completely distracts from any merit that this instrumental may have.
For the most part, At What Cost is rather inoffensive, to the point of being ultimately forgettable. There are most definitely some good moments, albeit with GoldLink typically not being present at such times, but these are largely overshadowed by the fundamental shortcomings of this record. Indeed, for an album that is supposedly an homage to life in the hood in Washington D.C., it is awfully concerned with women, almost to the extent of And After That, We Didn’t Talk, to the point that promoting it as such seems to be more of a selling point than an artistic idea that genuinely went into the conception of this project. The subject matters are also often questionable given GoldLink’s performances, which are typically much grittier than one would expect from the rapper’s tender reminiscence of previous lovers and attempts at seduction. What’s more, a significant portion of these tracks, particularly the ones to feature KAYTANDRA, display somewhat of a disconnect between the MC and the DJ, with neither notably complementing the other, which is a shame given that, out of context, there’s often little at fault with either. Therefore, At What Cost is simply a mediocre debut album that is unlikely to further GoldLink’s reputation in the rap game, with the common ground that is found between the artist’s previous endeavours being ultimately undistinguished.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5/10