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In the description of GoldLink’s breakout mixtape, there’s a quote from author and pastor Rob Bell: “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.” The line was fitting for that project from the Virginia rapper, the aptly titled The God Complex, but with the arrival of GoldLink’s debut album, And After That, We Didn’t Talk, the quote seems more like foreshadowing than a descriptor; a note to self more than a declaration.
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The God Complex introduced the world to GoldLink’s signature future bounce, a style characterized by rapid-fire rhymes over beats that land more in the realm of disco or dance than hip-hop. But on And After That, GoldLink doubles down on his denial of those “nice neat lines and definitions.” Make no mistake, the future bounce is there: It’s in the euphoric melodies and Jersey-club-inspired production of lead single “Dance On Me,” the industrial synths on “Spectrum,” and the retro soul on standout “Unique”—the latter two of which were produced by GoldLink’s brother in bounce and Virginia native, Louie Lastic.
It would’ve been easy to ride his signature sound straight to the bank, but he opted to vacate his comfort zone, stretch and swallow nearly every era of contemporary R&B from Soulquarians-style neo soul (“Late Night,” “See I Miss”) to an ultramodern vein that loosely resembles Frank Ocean (“Palm Trees”). In its pithy 35 minutes, And After That pushes whatever limits may have been set forth by its predecessor. GoldLink knows that his audience has grown, and as he told Pitchfork in a recent interview, he’s looking to include them all.
It’s not just the sound, though. And After That sees GoldLink opening up in ways that were only hinted in fleeting seconds on the mixtape, which makes sense: In the year and a half since The God Complex’s release, he’s traveled the world. He’s captured a spot on the XXL Freshman list and joined the ranks of tastemaker outfit Soulection. But during that time, there’ve been moments when it seemed like GoldLink was still trying to figure out who he was and what he wanted to be. Or maybe his refusal to neatly fit in a box was complicating things. Either way, he’s comfortable in his own skin now or, perhaps, he’s simply become more convincing.
Vulnerability and spirituality reign from start to finish, but that’s a given on an album about heartbreak with an image of a blood-smeared Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on the cover. There’s anecdotes about miscarriages, the woes of fame and his family, all insulated by the religion instilled in him by his minister mother. It peaks on “Zipporah” with a brief interlude featuring his mother’s voice demanding he get up and go to church. He opens the verse angry and urgent in an unfiltered stream of questions and confessions. “Black and young and a fuck up/ I want to prove this to you/ That I can be more than a boy/ But a father with you/ I wish I could change/ But God you made me this way” he muses, only to appeal to the Lord for some help before surrendering on the other side. “Go find you a better man/ And go have that baby boy/ And make him a better man.”
Elsewhere, on the shimmering “New Black,” he takes hip-hop to task, demanding his counterparts stop lying in their verses and glorifying negative things lest death be the result. It feels a little awkward considering GoldLink has certainly rapped his own share of lyrics that could warrant criticism in the era of Black Lives Matter. But if it comes with the introspection exhibited on And After That, who better to level such a demand than someone straddling that same fence? That’s a recurring theme here: He spends as much time repenting as he does convicting, both, others and himself—a savior of sorts in need of his own savior.
The album as a whole is challenging in this way. At times, it feels good; it’s scathingly smart and occasionally sexy. But in other places, it drifts into shameless obscenity: Most of the women are still bitches, and anyone can still get popped. It’s enough to make you wonder which version of GoldLink is the real one.