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No one knows who GoldLink is. With the exception of a few producers and a handful of fans, the 21-year-old rapper is anonymous, just a name and some music. He has friends and family who are in the dark about his work as an MC. There’s a quote on his SoundCloud that sums up his hesitation: “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.”
GoldLink’s debut project, The God Complex, draws inspiration from everything from soul to house. The fierce rhymes are positioned over beats from mostly unknown producers. Each sonic decision adheres to his “God Complex” concept: a mindset where beliefs are defined by personal ability and privilege. Plus, you’ve never seen God's face. The approach comes from a story an ex-girlfriend’s dad told him in high school.
“He always thought that if anybody wanted to imitate anybody, we should imitate God because God’s perfect,” he explains. “We should never try to be the next Malcolm X or the next nigga. We should be God. Even though we can’t be perfect, we should try.”
GoldLink refers to his sound as “Future Bounce,” a term coined by one of his primary producers, Lakim. “You know how everyone’s calling that sound Soulection and Sounds of Tomorrow?” says GoldLink. “Future gets thrown around with that. It's that mixed with some hood shit.”
While some of his music is a blissful journey through upbeat textures and playful lyrics, there’s something ominous about much of the EP. For the 26 minutes on The God Complex, you’re on a ride moving between light and dark. On "When I Die,” the record's final track, the ride stops. You hear a car crash. In the background, you hear a line from Left Eye’s contribution to Donell Jones’ "U Know What’s Up": “The passion's deep and filled with heat/Living this life on the hustle, I barely get enough time.”
“When I wrote [“When I Die”], I put myself in the mentality of, what would happen if I died today? Right now?” GoldLink says. It makes for a sincere, but frightening, look at his state of mind:
When I die, I hope my momma get to read that poem
When I die, I just want my father to apologize
When I die, I hope my ex don't uncover my lies
When I die, I wonder if Que gonna live through me
Before I die, somebody tell Sango that I need that beat
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised between the capital’s 58th Street and Cheverly, Md., GoldLink grew up in and out of motels after his house burned down when he was two years old. “I didn’t really care, but when somebody asked, I was like, 'We live in a hotel,"" he says. "I thought it was a new house and didn’t even realize."
His dad, a parks and recreation worker, left his mom, a secretary at a law firm, before GoldLink hit puberty. With one brother almost a decade older and out of the house, he and his mother moved to Bowie, Md., and, eventually, to Virginia because his mom "liked it better.” For eight years, he didn’t speak to his father. His relationship with his mother wasn't very different.
“My mom and I weren’t that close when I was growing up because she was gone seven days of the week; she was always in church,” he says. His EP may be titled The God Complex, but GoldLink isn’t exceptionally religious. The quote from Christian philosopher Rob Bell on his Soundcloud is something that he found during a random Google search: "I’ll put in a generic thing—God—and just read all the quotes about it.”
At 18, GoldLink finally began to make amends with his dad after finishing high school. At the time, he says he only cared about “being cool and girls,” and never paid attention in class. With no money or desire to go to college, he settled on rap.
“At the time I thought, ‘My mom hates me, my dad hates me. I don’t have a family. Fuck it, I might as well do something for me.’ I was a smart kid. I knew that it’s typical for a black kid to say, ‘I’m just going to rap,’” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to rap, but I’m going to study, I’m going to figure out what this is and how to put it together.’”
From Big L to KRS-One to Canibus to Kurupt, GoldLink studied the creative processes of his favorite artists. He became a student of the game and didn't limit himself to rap. Edgar Allan Poe, Def Jam Poetry, Pink Floyd, Grimes, and Lykke Li all factored in.
As polished as his works sound, he’s not backed by a label or major label producer just yet. In 2012, a local D.C. studio Indie Media Lab, run by his now-manager Henny Yegezu, started a program attempting to replicate Toronto’s “The Remix Project” called “The Movement.” Yegezu waived the studio time fee, and GoldLink was the most talented of the crop.
“The first thing he did on a mic at some homie’s crib sounded good,” Yegezu explains. “He didn’t grow up like, ‘I’m going to grow up to be a rapper, writing all the time.’ His voice is probably one of the strongest things. Once the program was done, I let him record for free.”
Yegezu took a gamble on GoldLink; he wasn’t in the DMV scene, he didn’t have a video, he didn’t have a real single, he wasn’t at open mics, and he didn’t care enough about making music. But he was talented.
“We’re the closest people, but he was so hard-headed and stubborn,” says Yegezu. “I started to get nervous. Can I work with him, no matter how talented he is? It was hard for me to let it go because I really did believe in him.”
GoldLink ventured to a few other studios and producers, but came back in Spring 2013 to settle down and put in work with Yegezu. The two would surf SoundCloud for hours, ripping songs and rapping over them, which is how they got hip to Sango, Kaytranada, and more.
“The point was to [not know many of the producers],” GoldLink explains. There’s Louie Lastic, an engineer at Indie Media Lab, and Fingalick, a producer from Lithuania they reached over email. Teklun is from Baltimore; Lakim and Bunx// Jaylen! are all from Virginia.
A lot of the homies I grew up with listen to GoldLink and don’t know it’s me.
The tape received praise from major music sites—Pitchfork gave it a 7.9, it made Complex’s Best Albums of 2014 (So Far) list. The sinister video for “When I Die” hit 100,000 views on YouTube, even without him in the short film. He describes the rollout as “fucking perfect.” For now, he hasn’t inked any deals and wants to see how far him and his home team can take the industry on their own. Almost six months before his debut project dropped, GoldLink released a handful of loosies on his SoundCloud. First it was a remix of Kaytranada’s “On & On,” followed by “Creep,” “The Heart,” and more. Then came his 9-track debut, The God Complex, with production from Louie Lastic and Fingalick, which delved into the realm of “Future Bounce” along with skittering beats, ecstatic, staccato raps, and GoldLink’s outstanding attention to detail—both lyrically and sonically—on a number of mixed tempo tracks.
His debut project is set for an iTunes re-release on July 22nd, but tonight, July 9th, he’ll be performing at Westway as part of Electric Circus’ “The Players Ball.” Next month, he’ll be at DC’s Trillectro show. Tonight isn’t his first live performance but it’s his first headlining show in NYC. The enigma around his moniker is dissipating.
“A lot of the homies I grew up with listen to GoldLink and don’t know it’s me,” he says, laughing. “So when everybody finds out it’s going to be like, ‘Oh that’s our little nigga, that’s our little nigga.’”
Lauren Nostro is the music news editor at Complex. She tweets here.