The Rise of 24kGoldn

The San Francisco-born artist dropped out of college, took over TikTok, and blew up on Spotify — all during a pandemic. What’s next?

An impromptu cypher with A$AP Rocky. The flood of free designer clothes. The major label debut set to drop later this week. These are just a few of the reasons Golden Landis Von Jones is beaming at me from the other side of his computer screen.

At 20 years old, the San Francisco-born emcee and singer — better known to fans as 24kGoldn — is understandably thrilled. Less than two years ago Goldn was just finding his footing with the autobiographically titled Dropped Outta College EP. In the time since, he has made the kind of run that aspiring rappers dream of: XXL’s Freshman Class, a multicountry chart-topping song, and a forthcoming full-length album that features the likes of Future and Swae Lee.

However, when Goldn describes the runup to the release of El Dorado, due March 26 on RECORDS/Columbia, as one of the most difficult periods in his life, it dawns on me that he’s still smiling — he’s been smiling since before the interview began, since before I finished asking my first question.

“I’ve felt probably every emotion on the spectrum of emotions leading up to this album,” he says of the road to his studio debut, before adding, “I’m enjoying the ride.” This remark, too, is filtered through an enormous, gleaming grin, as though stress for someone at the top — or for 24kGoldn, at least — might just be a different shade of happiness.

Making the Myth

With his bright wardrobe and sunny smile, 24kGoldn looks right at home in Southern California. He navigates Los Angeles with the same laidback ease that he applied to the double life he was living just two years ago at USC — a business student on a full-scholarship by day and a rapper by night.

If you were to track Goldn’s career from the summer of 2019, when he began his ascent to chart-topping success, you might mistakenly start the story at a USC frat party or on the dance floor of some muggy L.A. club. If you were to ask his mother, she might regale you with a story about her baby boy’s early interest in music. But Goldn likes to say that it begins even earlier. The way he tells it, his trajectory was set by forces beyond his control.

El Dorado — a Goldn city and the title of 24kGoldn’s new album. Photo by Jonathan Mannion

Goldn sees the unmistakable markings of fate in the birth name that inspired his rap moniker: In this light, his forthcoming album, El Dorado, is more than an artistic flourish — it is a deliberate gesture, intended to join his identity with a centuries-old legend about an apocryphal city of gold. 

The heroes of legends have humble beginnings, and Goldn is no different. When he was still down a few karats and up one vowel, he spent his days running around the Lakeview neighborhood (or Oceanview according to Google Maps) flipping watches and sneakers to make a buck. This was in the mid-2010’s, and by then life in Lakeview looked a lot different than it did 30 years ago, when underground artists like C Fresh and Cougnut of I.M.P. were at the head of San Francisco’s often-overlooked contributions to the Bay’s Mobb Music scene.

Gentrification and a decline in crime rates continue transforming the neighborhood, although for locals — especially local people of color — the hustle persists. So while Goldn may have been raised in a stable home and attended Lowell High, one of the city’s elite magnet schools, money was far from plentiful. As with Jay Z — an inspiration to so many aspiring rappers, including Goldn — business came before art; then art became business.

Golden’s shoe side-hustle led him to recording sessions in a studio above a sneaker shop, where he began making some of his earliest songs and posting them to SoundCloud. Listen to those nascent raps and you’ll find in the lyrics a mixture of braggadocio and psychobable. You’ll hear flows that vascillate from one song to the next in clumsy imitation of a number of rappers who were popping in 2017 and 2018. It’s the sound of a kid trying to figure out what kind of musician he wants to be.

But if you listen closely, you can also hear the rumblings of the Goldn, who last year dominated Spotify’s Global Top 50. Here is the syncopated flow, the energetic half-sung drawl, the potent wordplay, the gleeful embrace of chaos.

His musical shapeshifting is part of the reason Goldn was so unfit for the traditional Bay Area hip-hop scene. “I feel like I maxed out everything I could do in the Bay by the time I was leaving high school,” he says, “because the music I was making was not typical of the Bay Area.”

It’s true. While Goldn’s style appealed to many of his high school peers, recognition from local arbiters of hip-hop culture, like Thizzler and All Bay Music, was virtually non-existent (though that has changed since he began making waves).

“I can’t be mad at them,” Goldn says, theorizing that his music was too eclectic and genre-bending to find a wide audience in the Bay, where rappers are quick to celebrate the region’s stylistic exports but wary of importing outside influences. 

Goldn recounts these early defeats with amusement and that omnipresent smile. Yet, when he describes his music as too “global” for the Bay, it’s hard not to interpret the comment as a dig. Pressed on this later in our conversation, 24k defends the Bay’s resistance to new sounds — or, some might say, conservatism — attributing the posture to the validation artists felt watching hyphy culture’s surging popularity in the early 2000s. Indeed, who among us local hip-hop heads doesn’t swell with a kind of self-righteous pride upon hearing that familiar E-40 boast: “I’m soil where them rappers be getting their lingo from.”

“Because of that,” Golden says, “it’s been hard to consistently evolve over time.”

Goldn Global

A few minutes into our discussion of his “globality,” 24k’s eyes wander to some point offscreen, below the camera.

We’ve been discussing how his most-streamed songs feature collaborations with the Latinx artists iann dior and J Balvin; with the British electronic group Clean Bandit; with North Carolina’s Dababy. Skip through his discography and you’ll find him flexing his Migos flow on songs like “Dropped Out of College” — with its trunk-rattling sub bass and minimalist melody — before pivoting to a track like “3, 2, 1” — which features the kind of ringing power chords you’d expect from Pete Townshend.

On the remixed version of his hit “Mood,” which features Justin Bieber, Goldn comes right out and acknowledges his misfit status in the Bay Area: Putting a spin on the rap trope of “making it out,” Goldn offers a melodic rejoinder, saying,“Where I’m from people like me don’t make it in the mainstream.” His is not so much the racial or socioeconomic struggle of Lakeview’s ’90s Mobb rappers. It is a middle-class battle over aesthetics — where regionalism and market expectations are fighting and losing badly against digital, globalized pop.

He continues nodding along to my questions in mock-attention: the tell-tale sign of a person distracted by their phone. This distraction, too, is relevant to the discussion — Goldn’s phone has been an invaluable tool in his rise.

While he’s far from a one-note TikTok rapper, it was through that social media platform that his single “Valentino” first gained traction in 2019. A scrupulous businessman, Goldn jumped at the opportunity and capitalized on the hype. Within weeks, he had teamed up with Aviva Sofia, the TikTok star whose dance popularized the song, to make a short clip that would give Goldn another boost. 

To an older generation, the relationship Goldn maintains with TikTok memes might resemble the type of sell-out move that real musicians are supposed to avoid. But for this generation of rappers, joining social media trends is just another way of engaging with their fanbase. For them, music lives in two forms: as the purely sonic experience of a recording, and as a soundtrack accompanying ten-second videos.

@24kgoldn

naw fr tho who dressin better than me

♬ 3, 2, 1 – 24KGoldn

That means being comfortable seeing a costumed e-girl throw a whimsical dance and an Instagram filter on your latest party banger. It also means ceding a certain amount of control over your art. Sometimes an artist’s work can be bruised by the jokes — something SoundCloud’s so-called “mumble rappers” know all too well. But sometimes a song is meme-ified in such a way that it becomes far more popular than it otherwise would have.

Goldn frequently speaks in terms of visualization. For example, he says, he spent several years “envisioning” his debut album. Now, in the final days before El Dorado officially enters the world, he speaks of achieving his “vision” of artistic success.

And so, when it comes to visually representing his music, it’s not surprising to learn that Goldn swings for the fences, seeking to set himself apart from the rest of the pack. “When I think of videos that inspire me, it’s the videos that create a world of their own,” he says, referencing Kanye’s 30-minute “Runaway” video and Busta Rhymes’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”

So far, Goldn has kept his clips more Busta than Ye — favoring an over-the-top party to an over-the-top art school aesthetic. The music video for “Dropped Outta College” features a “Stacy’s Mom”-meets-Stifler’s mom plotline, “Coco” finds him riding a jetski over arctic waters, and his latest, for “3, 2, 1,” features a scene where he erupts in a Mortal Kombat-esque deluge of CGI blood.

His ambition to “create a world” in his music videos show that his singular path circumventing the Bay Area music scene also involves abandoning the region’s visual tropes. Linked to that goal is also a “global” expansion of the duties of a rapper. To that point, Goldn identifies himself as an actor and a businessman, and his fashion interests suggest that –model and –designer are hyphenates looming on the horizon.

Here, his ambitions and his early successes recall those of his inspiration, A$AP Rocky; the Harlem-rapper’s continued popularity might even provide a view into the future that awaits Goldn.

A decade ago, A$AP Rocky rode the woozy, syrupy sounds of Houston rap to worldwide acclaim, demonstrating that New York was no longer the center of the hip-hop universe. Riding the hype that followed his music, Rocky also pushed his unique style and love of designer clothing to expand the blueprints of rapper-as-fashionista, rapper-as-model, and rapper-as-pretty-boy — a mantle Goldn, who has talked about designing a skincare brand, is more than ready to pick up.

But an important musical distinction exists between Goldn and Rocky. Rocky imported Southern styles into Harlem hip-hop to create hybrid sounds; Goldn took hybrid sounds resulting from a decade of internet-enabled cultural homogenization and ran off with them to Los Angeles.

After all, Goldn did not create the rap-singing, cross-genre, power cord-laden style of emo trap that can be heard on radio stations like ALT 105.3. Credit for that goes to the musicians who four years ago were being clumped together under the label of “SoundCloud rap.” But where artists like GothBoiClique and Trippie Redd crafted lyrics about depression and broken hearts, Goldn’s music largely avoids interiority. He is focused on fun, and his lyrics echo across the track like the muffled sound of club music heard just outside the doors.

Plugged into SoundCloud and TikTok, he looked into the future and turned its homogenized sound into his product. “I owe a large part of my career to my ability to navigate this digital landscape better than my peers,” he says. In this era of shrinking regional sounds, Goldn is more aptly described as the post-global rapper, someone who came after the experiment had been completed and began making the latest, most pop version of it. That doesn’t mean that Goldn hasn’t himself innovated. His major success has been to invert the emotional tenor of guitar rap and fill the sound with joy. He’s turned his own intrinsic, infectious happiness and made it the product, no matter what modality he is operating in.

El Dorado looks to be more of the same: Goldn says he wants this album to showcase “the variety of music” he can make, and with features including Future and Swae Lee alongside iann dior and Dababy, the album is shaping up to be a grab-bag of the biggest contemporary hip-hop markets. World-building, for Goldn, has no geographic specificity; he is instead colliding every sound into a tempest set above the mythic Golden City: not San Francisco — El Dorado. 

All Mixed Up

Whether or not he is salty about the lack of early recognition he received in his hometown, Goldn is certainly loyal to San Francisco and the broader Bay Area. When discussing the region’s influence on him, he regularly steers the conversation in non-musical directions — highlighting our ethnic diversity and cultural vibrancy, or talking about the importance of good teachers and parents.

The son of a white Jewish mother and a Black father, he quite literally embodies the multiculturalism he exults. This is the guy who shot one of his first big music videos on a university-funded trip to Tokyo. The same guy who joined a fraternity and wrote a song where half the lyrics are some variation of “Bitch, I go to USC.” (You can find a video on YouTube of the song being performed on a frat lawn, along with a crowd of white students dancing behind him.)

At Lowell High School, Goldn was already popular for being the guy who rapped. In the years since he graduated, the school has become embroiled in controversy for changes to its admission policies meant to remedy years of racism and exclusivity. USC, meanwhile, has long faced criticism from Black students for the discrimination they face on campus. Asked how it feels to have navigated white-dominated spaces for so long, Goldn seeks the middle ground. While acknowledging the problems these institutions perpetuate, he describes his own experiences in them as being characterized not by subjection to racism but by open-minded community-building between different groups.

24kGoldn initially studied business at USC in hopes to improving financial literacy in minority neighborhoods in San Francisco. Photo by Jonathan Mannion

“I’ve always lived a life of duality,” Goldn says of his ability to mesh with his friends from Lakeview and friends at Lowell, and then adds, “I’m all about bringing people together.” These comments are trailed by a subtle smile — an expression that communicates his optimism about the potential for multiculturalism to combat racism.

The same way he led a group of Black friends to join the USC fraternity TKE, he views El Dorado as an opportunity to bring artists of different cultures together. Again speaking of visions, he describes his ideal vision of a 24kGoldn concert: “The suburban kids standing next to the street dudes, standing next to the emo kids, standing next to the moms that were bringing their kids to the show.”

He certainly paints a hopeful picture, although some might insist it overlooks the disparity that exists between “the suburban kids” and “the street dudes,” and their power to navigate the space inside the concert venue — let alone the world beyond its doors. But calling Goldn naive about issues of racial inequality wouldn’t be entirely fair.

Early in our conversation, he spoke at length about his desire to help improve financial literacy in minority neighborhoods in San Francisco. That goal was part of the reason he decided to study business at USC, and although his interest in university faded after his musical career took off, there are flashes of an academic in him: energized, and a little didactic, he spends a couple minutes outlining a hypothetical case study (including real figures and back-of-the-envelope calculations) to describe the predatory relationship between record labels and young musicians, particularly musicians of color. 

Goldn Gate Bridge

Listening to Goldn describe his vast ambitions — and his place at the center of them — I begin to imagine the stress that might wear on that big smile of his. What happens when there is no energy to act as a cultural and racial bridge? How long, I wonder, can he keep smiling through every repetitive interview? He has a penchant for platitudes, especially in response to setbacks: “Everything happens for a reason,” “There’s a time and place for everything.” As he continues acting as a bridge — flashing the smile of the ingratiating celebrity — one hopes that there is more than the blind optimism of youth to hold him through the vicissitudes of fame.

After all, El Dorado was a mythical city. Belief in it was perpetuated by the greed of violent conquistadors who destroyed more trying to find the city than could ever be justified or repaid — even by the riches they sought to plunder.

Courtesy photo

And what about the myths of hip-hop? Jay Z might be the paradigm of success for every young rapper-entrepreneur, but his earliest hustles framed success in terms of a zero-sum accumulation of capital.

On Goldn’s side is an idealistic, communitarian view of success. The list of features on his top songs tell a story about a musical landscape rapidly becoming more diverse, and better because of it. And while the amorphous concept of  “global” ambition is undeniably problematic in its antagonism to fading regional culture, it also implies connectivity, and interconnectivity.

Cynics will call TikTok rappers sell-outs and write off their optimistic ideologies as dangerous naivete, and maybe there are shades of truth in that, but what matters more is that their music listens back. Their songs echo outward across the internet on a two-way channel that brings the music back spliced and cut and smudged with the fingerprints of everyone who has listened. 24kGoldn is a bridge, and so is everyone who hears his music.


Julian Robles is a contributing writer. Twitter @PBJ_Robles

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