In a way, GoldLink’s Diaspora is significantly more ambitious than At What Cost, his 2017 major label debut. Where that record was focused on capturing the sound and culture of a single region, the DMV, the rapper’s latest is a panoramic look at modern black music from around the globe. True to its title, the album incorporates reggae, dancehall, afrobeat, trap, and more, all of which are united by the elasticity of GoldLink’s delivery, as lithe and lively as ever, and a choice cadre of guests who Link empowers on nearly every song. The album further proves that GoldLink’s best role may be as a Dr. Dre-style auteur, smartly figuring out when to cede the spotlight and when to shine.
Just as GoldLink gave opportunities to talented DC upstarts like April George and Shy Glizzy on At What Cost, he offers similar platforms to impressive newcomers like AriPenSmith (who contributes to five tracks, most notably “Joke Ting”) and Afroswing group WSTRN on “Yard.” On tracks like “Joke Ting” and “Days Like This,” GoldLink pops up for a single verse, allowing the singers to set the tone and establish a groove before Link comes in with double time flows that careen off every kick and snare.
Often, he’s willing to do the unglamorous work on songs while letting his guests handle the earworm parts. On the afrobeat inspired “Zulu Screams,” he leaves the infectious hook and bridge to Maleek Berry and Bibi Bourelly, respectively. Jay Prince and WaveIQ handle irresistible choruses on “U Say” and “Spanish Song,” showy melodies that GoldLink could have easily kept to himself were he a different kind of artist.
There’s a palpable confidence to GoldLink – it’s how he knew the now-double platinum “Crew” would ultimately wind up a hit – but it’s different from that of artists like DaBaby or Megan Thee Stallion, who are perpetually flexing front and center on their songs. The DC rapper understands the unique power and inimitableness of his voice; he claims dominion over a record the moment he spits a bar on it. He’s a perfect MC for 2019 both because of his enthusiasm for global sounds and because the trend towards shorter albums and songs suits him well. A GoldLink album where he has three verses on every song would almost be too rich; it would be steak with a side of steak.
Because his voice doesn’t saturate Diaspora, we only get a handful of glimpses into GoldLink’s psyche, but the ones he does provide are vividly rendered. “Maniac” is a menacing trap-tinged track that is perfectly serviceable but is elevated by an affecting Mac Miller shout-out and some evocative bars about Link’s past in the DMV (“Sold weed, sold pills, sold D, sold this, sold that/ Look, I don't wanna talk about it all”). He also offers a rather harrowing snapshot of his youth on “Days Like This,” rapping “Yeah, a lotta street shit back in '06/ Turned 13, had my first stick/ Ride around the city with the stolen whips/ Fought niggas 'fore I had a first kiss,” though the song is hurt by an ill-placed Khalid feature during which he sings in a thin, timid falsetto, barely sounding like himself.
The album’s two other biggest guests, Pusha-T and Tyler, the Creator, also create some chop on these otherwise smooth waters, though neither are as grating as Khalid. “Coke White / Moscow” is a solid piece of drug dealer tough talk with a choice Project Pat sample, but it fits awkwardly between the bouncy, saccharine “More” and the breezy shuffle of “U Say.” On the latter, GoldLink is buzzing off a drink or two and floating around the woman he’s interested in like a Looney Tunes character. Tyler can’t quite match Goldlink’s lustful charisma, though his baritone intertwines with the song’s bass line to create a mellower, seductive energy.
Early in his career, GoldLink strived for anonymity, even wearing a mask during most early performances. He’s a Grammy-nominated star now, but Diaspora proves that despite the profile boost he’s still concerned with the quality and cohesion of his body of work, not boosting his own profile. He explained to Wonderland that his goal has long been for people "to grade the product for what is presented,” and that with this album he wanted to preserve the roots of African music “before it becomes 15-17 generations removed – then we’re in deep trouble.”
That kind of ambitious goal, like Tyler, the Creator exploring sexuality and the agony and ecstasy of youth on Flower Boy or Kendrick Lamar weaving together multiple narratives into a heady, thematically cohesive tapestry on To Pimp a Butterfly, requires an artist who can both think ambitiously and stymie any need to be the constant center of attention. Diaspora doesn’t reach the highs of those records because its concern is more sound than story, but it further cements that GoldLink can conceive of and execute his ideas better than most anyone in hip-hop today.