GoldLink’s ‘Crew’ takes him all the way to the Grammys

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GoldLink | Polly Irungu

On a hazy August afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y. at the 2015 Afropunk Festival, GoldLink had just concluded his high-wattage set, sparked by scads of fresh-faced fans shouting along to tunes from his widely hailed debut mixtape, “The God Complex.”

WGCI’s Big Jam 2017 When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30 Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison Tickets/Info: ticketmaster.com

“Yes and no,” the rapper-singer (who himself proudly hails from Washington, D.C.) was saying backstage, in response to a query about whether his fledgling project’s copious acclaim had surprised him. “ʻNo,’ because I was confident about the hours and hours of work and research [that went into it]; I always knew. And ‘yes,’ because regardless of how much planning you do, it’s still shocking.”

Turns out it was also mere prelude. Now GoldLink – who appears Dec. 30 at the United Center in WGCI’s star-powered Big Jam 2017, preceding such marquee names as Chris Brown, Rick Ross and Yo Gotti – is up for his first-ever Grammy award, in the best rap/sung performance category, for his platinum-certified hit single, “Crew.” The artist’s spicy-sweet salute to his home turf and its propulsive musical tradition became the cornerstone of his first major-label album, “At What Cost,” which came out in March.

“Crew” also cracked the top half of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, peaking at No. 45 (and No. 15 on the trade publication’s Hot &B/Hip-Hop Songs tally) – a music-biz milestone for GoldLink and company.

“That was weird; surreal,” he said reflectively in a mid-December phone call from Amsterdam, where he’d just finished a string of European dates. Then the MC again flashed his enviable self-confidence: “I wouldn’t say I never thought it’d get that far, because I knew it’d be something. I just didn’t know what that something was.”

“Crew,” which features a pair of fellow D.C. artists – singer Brent Faiyaz (who supplies the sinuous hook) and rapper Shy Glizzy (aka Young Jefe) – carries meaning for GoldLink on multiple levels. Most poignantly, the song figured in a recent, heart-tugging exchange with a female fan, at a Washington shopping mall where the rapper was “going to get some food.”

“I’ll never forget her,” “GoldLink said. “She was like, ‘I really love your song ‘Crew,’ because I was with my boyfriend at the time, and it was his favorite song. Me and him would sing it back and forth; he’d sing a line, and I’d sing a line. And then he ended up dying in a car crash.’”After that, the young woman told him she couldn’t bear to listen to “Crew” – until bit by bit, she came to see it as a source of healing. GoldLink recounted her words: “‘A couple of months ago I started finding peace in the song – I wanted to thank you, because it makes me feel better.’”

Born D’Anthony Carlos in 1993, the nascent artist cut his earliest tracks after high school graduation, at local studio Indie Media Lab. He started uploading songs to BandCamp as Gold Link James, pruning his handle to GoldLink in 2013 and burgeoning his online presence via SoundCloud.

“The God Complex,” a 26-minute snapshot of his checkered teenhood, bowed the following year, swelling GoldLink’s fan base. It collected media accolades at home and abroad; U.K. magazine Clash ranked “Complex” No. 7 on its Top 10 Mixtapes of 2014, while Pitchfork declared GoldLink had forged “a sound all his own. … Brightly colored, hyper, and upbeat, draw[ing] openly from genres that street rap usually has no time for: bachata, go-go [indigenous D.C. funk], classic house.”

“And people have my mixtape tattooed on their body,” GoldLink would marvel the following summer at Afropunk. “My face is tattooed on someone’s arm in Australia. This is really real” – all of it spawned by his firsthand account of “this really distraught kid doing a lot of illegal things to get where he is – fightin’, stealin’, drug-dealin’; I was homeless and [stuff].”

Cut to “At What Cost,” helmed by leading-edge producers including Kaytranada, Matt Martians, and the rapper’s longtime D.C. collaborator Louie Lastic. It marks “the first time I actually know who I am,” GoldLink, who just became a father, added.

“I wanted to create something for my hometown,” he stressed. “So people who aren’t from D.C. could [hear it] and be, ‘That’s what D.C. sounds like. That’s what it feels like.’”

Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.

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