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It’s four hours before showtime on a Wednesday in late July, and GoldLink is animated. As the 9:30 Club staff tinkers with the stage during his soundcheck, the rapper segues from jokingly practicing dance moves with fellow rapper and collaborator Chaz French to warming up his voice on the hook for “Ay Ay,” the hypnotic opening track from his radiant 2014 debut project, The God Complex. He’s seemingly unfazed by the knowledge that he’s helped sell out L.A.-based music collective Soulection’s touring showcase, “The Sound of Tomorrow.”

Credit GoldLink’s swift ascent to that ability to lose himself in his playful-yet-painstaking nature. Last April’s release of The God Complex rocketed him from talented unknown to critical darling. His knack for sliding energetic staccato rhythms over a vibrant gumbo of sounds helped popularize future bounce, the experimental intersection of hip-hop and dance music that’s become his trademark. This June, he joined D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy on XXL magazine’s annual “Freshman Class” cover, a nod to hip-hop’s emerging talent and guaranteed argument-starter.

But just a little over a year before his face graced the cover of a glossy magazine, GoldLink was obscuring it. Up until a release show for The God Complex held at U Street Music Hall last year, the rapper had shied away from photos and performed behind a mask. Now that he’s unveiled his identity, seismic levels of intrigue surround his next moves.

There’s irony in the newfound global reach of the 22-year-old’s music: Before GoldLink was successful enough to tour, he’d seen little of the world outside of D.C. Born D’Anthony Carlos, he bounced from Northeast D.C. to Cheverly and Bowie before he and his mother settled in Virginia. “I grew up in one area, so I didn’t really see anything other than what I grew up around,” he says.

Uninterested in college and unable to get a job after graduating from Hayfield Secondary School in 2011, GoldLink turned to music, studying it like he was back in a classroom. “It was a lot of research as opposed to influences,” he says. “It was more like, how can I take that and say [certain things] in a different way with a unique sound? Where the studying and research came in is that I think the world works in waves. For example, in music, for me in my short life, Ja Rule was really fuckin’ hot. DMX was really fuckin’ hot. Jay [Z] was really fuckin’ hot. Then there a gray-ass period. Then Diddy was hot, then Kanye came through. Then Drake. Waves. So all the way up until I started a wave, I was like, ‘I think this is the sound that’s going to happen.’ It was all work, research, prediction, and prayer.”

The studying paid off in 2012 when GoldLink met his current manager, Henny Yegezu. In addition to working as a concert promoter and talent buyer, Yegezu runs Indie Media Lab, a recording studio in Falls Church. “One of my homies was starting this program where he hand-picked a couple of kids and I’d give them a discounted rate [on studio time]. Actually, I [let most of them record] for free,” Yegezu says. “GoldLink was probably 18 or 19 at the time and was part of a group of friends who were rapping, and that stuff was super raw compared to what he’s making now. But even from the jump, he naturally leaned into the production and had a lot of character in his flow.”

Apprehensive about managing GoldLink due to his stubbornness and inexperience, the rapper’s dedication and rapid improvement eventually convinced Yegezu to sign on. “I didn’t want to get [GoldLink’s] hopes up, but I knew he wanted me to mentor him and be his manager,” Yegezu says. “But he just kept getting better, and I think maybe a few months after the program, he made ‘Ay Ay,’ which ended up being the first song on The God Complex. He actually made that a year before the project came out. That was one of the first times where it hit me that he was getting really good.”

Yegezu eventually sold his studio engineer, producer Louie Lastic, on working with GoldLink, too. “At first he was a little standoffish because I don’t think he saw the full vision at first, but he eventually started giving him beats, and that’s how they developed their chemistry,” Yegezu says.

Lastic, who’s dubbed himself GoldLink’s “musical grandpa,” has his fingerprints all over the rapper’s recording process. Lastic mixes and masters the bulk of GoldLink’s catalog, and his breezy, off-kilter style is a perfect match for GoldLink’s spirited flow. He layers delicate keys and distorted samples over busy percussion to create a sound that feels like an LSD-fueled hallucination playing in fast forward. He and GoldLink feed off of each other in a symbiotic flow, which Lastic says is anything but formulaic.

“We work best when the feeling in the studio is loose and relaxed,” Lastic writes in an email. “The only consistent thing about our studio sessions is usually he’ll start writing to a skeleton of the beat, then we structure everything around his voice after it’s recorded.”

Multiple listens are necessary to fully digest GoldLink’s music; it’s so intricate and involved that the contents of his lyrics can get lost in all the moving parts. Over the sedated hum of the Kaytranada-produced head-nodder “Sober Thoughts,” GoldLink raps about a toxic relationship with removed clarity: “We fuck today, we fight tomorrow then we fuck again/I fuck her homie, she find out and then she fuck my man.”

The stacked, frantic instrumentation of “Planet Paradise” shrouds the song’s bleaker themes. Last year, Goldlink told City Paper that the song is a “street record you [can] dance to.” “The hook [‘Oh God, shout out to the squad/ Real niggas dying every day we pray to God’] is kind of a gang chant, on the low,” he explained. “So it’s honestly a story about gang banging.” Listeners must adopt a dual awareness to process it all; the syntax could soar right over their heads as they groove to the lush sounds. GoldLink’s voice is already distinct and rife with personality, but he has a knack for crafting music that’s magnetic and dance-ready yet complex, inviting deeper analysis. Achieving this rare feat requires exacting musical execution and a high level of comfort with his producers of choice.

GoldLink trusts the ears of producers he admires. He became a fan of Soulection affiliate Lakim after he and Yegezu stumbled upon the beatmaker’s song “Future Bounce” about two years ago. Drawn to its rigorous thump and sample of Crystal Waters’ house staple “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” GoldLink and Yegezu contacted Lakim about working together. Lakim was future bounce’s architect; GoldLink is the invigorating subgenre’s voice.

The sound that Yegezu describes as “urban dance music” pushed GoldLink into the national spotlight, where its offbeat energy piqued the interest of some of music’s most influential figures. GoldLink has formed a relationship with Rick Rubin, an iconoclast who’s lent his avant-garde production style and insight to artists like the Beastie Boys and Kanye West. Def Jam Records, hip-hop’s most lionized record label, was born in Rubin’s New York University dorm in the ’80s. According to GoldLink, Rubin sought him out.

“The best thing that I learned from him was something he said verbatim,” GoldLink says. “It was: ‘If you create the best art that you possibly can, everything else will fall into place.’ I took it and ran with it.” GoldLink is going through a transitional period, one that has rapidly taken him from dreaming of the world outside of the bubble he grew up in to performing in far-flung locales like London and Australia. Touring and coping with budding fame have become the source of an unexpected higher learning.

“I’ve learned all of the things that make you a man,” GoldLink says of the past year. “I’ve learned responsibility. I’ve learned how big the world really is. I’ve learned compromise. I’ve learned a lot. Just being around the world and traveling, I’ve learned patience. Just talking to people and [having things not go] your way, you always have to keep a level head. And I wasn’t like that before.”

GoldLink will have to exercise that patience during the next phase of his career, as many expect him to duplicate the success of The God Complex on his second release. Artists who receive praise for sublime debuts can end up chasing that spark forever, enduring criticism of disappointing later projects for the remainder of their careers. The accolades that Wale, the area’s biggest commercial hip-hop success, has earned haven’t shielded him from this pitfall. GoldLink says he’s working smarter, though not necessarily harder, and preparing to dodge similar knocks.

“Don’t abandon the thing that everyone fell in love with first,” he tells himself. “Take that, grow it, and keep growing it. Always switch your sound. Never stick to the same thing, but don’t abandon [what people fell in love with].” It’s an observant mantra: GoldLink’s taking cues from artists he’s studied, like Jay Z and Kanye, who’ve achieved longevity through constant evolution. Even if GoldLink never reaches their level of influence, he wants to stay dedicated to pushing hip-hop outside of its comfortable boundaries.

“I just want the quality of music to be better,” he says. “I want people to dance again; I don’t want people to be ashamed to dance. I want people to make great quality music.”

***

By the time GoldLink takes the 9:30 Club stage on July 22, his energy matches his eager audience. “This is y’all show, not mine,” he tells the crowd, drawing frenzied cheers that continue as the mesmeric beginning of “Ay Ay” starts up. GoldLink’s take on TLC’s 1994 hit “Creep” serves as a segue into The God Complex’s “Hip-Hop (Interlude),” where GoldLink reminisces on his childhood through the intoxicating essence of ’90s music.

After bringing Chaz French on stage with him, the two part the crowd to make room for a mosh pit, and French launches himself into the arms of his fans. Life rafts and a huge inflatable turtle bounce out into the crowd, a truly diverse bunch that testifies to GoldLink’s broad appeal. But the show’s highlight wasn’t the onstage antics or any single song. It was an announcement.

Near the end of GoldLink’s set, he revealed that his next project, And After That, We Didn’t Talk, will come out on Soulection. “They’re my family, real simple,” he says. “They heard something and believed in me, and for them to believe in me like that and help me grow as an artist—as a man—that means a lot to me and I feel like they deserve to have my project.”

And After That, We Didn’t Talk is an ominous title, but when prodded about its inspiration, GoldLink divulges very few details. “A heartbreak,” he admits after a long pause. “It’s just about a heartbreak. I feel like it’s very relatable, and it’s just powerful to say that: ‘And after that, we didn’t talk.’ No matter where you start or end a conversation, that means a lot.” He won’t say when or how this heart was broken, but it’s left a deep dent in his psyche. His core group of collaborators say the release will be an emphatic step in another direction.

Lakim, who’s heard some of GoldLink’s new music, is impressed by the rapper’s willingness to deviate. “The new music I’ve heard sounds nothing like The God Complex, and it’s phenomenal,” he writes. “I’m sure some might be disappointed and taken aback by it, but I believe most people will trust in what he’s doing.”

Even if GoldLink’s upcoming project is a change of pace, Yegezu doesn’t think it will impede the still-unsigned artist’s growth. “I can see him taking this sound to the radio, to be honest,” he says. “I think, long-term, he can see himself being a radio artist, but you get more out of the situation and create more sustainability when you actually grow something.”

In an era when hit singles and terrestrial radio spins are poor predictors for album sales, which don’t bring artists much profit anyway, smart musicians can give music away for free online, tour, grow their following, and make a decent living without selling a single album. Careers fizzle out as rapidly as they begin, so underdeveloped hit-chasers won’t have long shelf-lives in this climate. GoldLink may hit the mainstream in the future, but he’ll be polished when that day arrives.

With his focus locked on what’s next, GoldLink is balancing the pain of what motivated And After That, We Didn’t Talk with the high of a hometown show he called “unreal.”

“That shit right there, that’s inspiring the shit out of me,” he says of the 9:30 Club performance. “That makes me want to do everything: work harder, be better, be a better person. It’s the people. D.C. mainly, but people [everywhere] inspire me so much.”