24kGoldn's 2020 Midas Touch
No Tour? No Problem.
Granted, it wasn’t ideal when, back in March, one of Gen Z hip-hop’s brightest rising stars had to slam the brakes on a year that was supposed to include his debut headline tour and first trip to Europe. But Golden Landis Von Jones, known to the world as 24kGoldn, the affable rapper and singer who blew up in 2019 with the melodic-trap TikTok-fueled mega-hit, “Valentino,” is nothing if not optimistic and persistent, and quickly found a way to make coronavirus lemons into lemonade. Although 2020 may be the most challenging era of our collective lifetime, for Golden, through a mix of determination and happy surprises, it’s turning out to be even bigger than his breakout year.
“In a weird way, the pandemic has kind of been the best thing for my career,” Golden says via Zoom, from the back porch of his L.A. home. “I think just because, I’ve been really consistent with my work. And not everyone has taken the same approach, you know? A lot of people have just taken this time to chill. But for me, I felt like, ‘Now is the time to go even harder.’ Because it’s less…cluttered? There’s less distractions? If I can capture people’s attention, I might be the thing they really focus on right now.”
When COVID struck, Golden was already flying high with “City of Angels,” the explosive, infectious alt-pop-rock bop that became, after “Valentino”, his second monster single, racking up nine-figure streams, a flurry of remixes, and prompting a re-think of just what Golden was capable of, musically. He had just come off a US tour supporting YBN Cordae and was halfway through a planned two-week album camp when it became apparent 2020 would not be proceeding as normal. His first move was to return to his native San Francisco, already under a “shelter in place” order, to see his parents and sister.
“I went back for like three weeks, just to be with them and make sure we were all okay,” he explains. “Because this has never happened in the history of our country. I didn’t know if there was gonna be riots or looting, stuff like that, and thankfully, everything was fine with quarantine. But when I got back to L.A. I was like, 'I can’t just be stuck in the house playing video games all day. This isn’t gonna take me to where I want to be in life. I need to work, I need to make music, I need to be inspired.'” So Golden and his right-hand man, musician and producer Omer Fedi, got an Airbnb and set about making new songs.
One track, cooked up in an afternoon at their friend and fellow muti-hypnenate hip-hop-pop-emo-rap charmer iann dior’s house, would prove to be yet another game-changer. “It was me, iann, Omer, KBeaZy [producer Keegan Bach] and the engineer Ryan [Cantu],” he recalls. “And me and iann were playing Call of Duty, actually. And Omer and KBeaZy were cooking up a beat. We didn’t even go into that day with the intention of making music. I wasn’t trying to make music! I was trying to win in this video game, and I was just struck by inspiration and pure feeling and that made me sing that hook.”
“Why you always in a mood?” he sang. “F**kin’ around, acting brand new.” In an instant, he says, Omer knew Golden was onto something. “He said, ‘Holy s**t, you need to stop everything right now, and lay that down, cause that’s hot!’ And then iann laid his verse, and here we are today.” Here we are, with “Mood”, Golden and iann’s breezy, made-for-summertime smash that, as of this writing, is firmly wedged between Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and BTS’ “Dynamite” in the stratosphere of Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits. It’s topped Billboard’s Hot Rock and Alternative Songs chart, and the video, in which the boys make frustrating girls seem actually fun, has done 11 million views in a month.
“Mood” is not far away from matching “Valentino” and “City of Angels”’ numbers, but unlike those two hits, Golden didn’t necessarily see this one coming.
“I knew it was gonna be a big one, but I would be lying I said I knew it was gonna happen like this,” he says. “Because with ‘Valentino’ and ‘City of Angels,’ it was a gradual build-up into becoming a beast. But with this song, we really hit the ground running, and I think it was just a lot of support from both me and iann’s fans that pushed this so strong, from the beginning.” And it might never have happened if not for a lockdown.
“I think I can see the silver lining in this,” he continues. “Whereas, because I didn’t go on tour, because I didn’t go to Europe, well now I have so much more time to concentrate on making new music, just making the best songs ever. If this pandemic didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have ‘Mood’, because I might not have been with iann on that day, you know?”
His 2020 successes don’t end there. In April he scored with the soulful “Unbelievable” with Kaash Paige; he featured on pal Landon Cube’s rousing rocker “Eighties”; and he got his feet wet in the dance world with spots on “Tinted Eyes” by DVBBS featuring blackbear, and most recently, “Tick Tock” a Top 20 dance chart hit by the UK’s Clean Bandit and Mabel.
“That was really a surprise when I heard that they wanted to put me on the song,” he admits. “Cause I always underestimate how many people know who I am. And I was like, ‘Yo, Clean Bandit, y’all have huge songs, and you selected me to be on this soon-to-be huge song.’ I was very grateful. So, shout out Clean Bandit, shout out Mabel.”
If jumping on a club banger seems like an unlikely move for a young artist who not that many years ago was making straight raps over trap beats at his SF home – it shouldn’t. Like so many of his Zoomer peers, including Cube and dior, Golden is proudly genre-agnostic. If he is first and foremost a hip-hop artist, he’s proving himself adept at a wide swath of sounds.
“I feel like the whole concept of ‘genre’ is a thing of the past,” he asserts. "Music is more democratic now than it’s ever been before. If you like an artist, if you like a song, you just go on Spotify and listen to it. Versus like, 20, 30 years ago, artists had to create songs for the radio, you know to fit in a certain slot, a certain type of station. For me, it’s like, if I think it’s a dope song, whether it’s hip-hop, pop, rock, dance, jazz even? You know? I’ll get on a jazz song! [laughs] Miles Davis, something like that!”
He had to convince RECORDS/Columbia to give him that leeway when it came to "City of Angels." While it is arguably the most immediate song Golden has released to date, the sort of alt-rock gem that one could easily imagine hearing on TRL circa 2004, alongside Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy, the label wasn’t initially convinced it was the right move for him. While it was included on his debut EP Dropped Outta College, released in November of last year, just after Golden’s 19th birthday, the label wanted the more reliably hip-hop title track (along with its hilarious, Nick Jandora-directed, hot-for-teacher video) to take the lead.
“Part of the agreement was, ‘Okay we’ll let you put “City of Angels” out, but you have to let 'Dropped Outta College' be the focus track,’” he recalls. “So I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna let y’all spend your money on 'Dropped Outta College,' but I’m gonna blow up this song 'City of Angels myself.'" So, I did!! With this music s**t, you have to keep proving yourself over and over and over again before someone even thinks about listening to what you have to say as an artist.”
Of all the happy surprises that 2020 has offered up to Golden, none has made him prouder than his selection last month to XXL’s Freshman Class of 2020, taking the fan-voted 10th spot, and joining a group that includes Polo G, NLE Choppa, Chika, Lil Tjay, Fivio Foreign and Jack Harlow. If, as Golden points out, social media has changed the landscape of new artist discovery since the inception of the Freshman issue as a tastemaker back in 2007, being included is still a huge achievement that has left him stunned.
“You have no idea how special that whole moment was to me,” he says. “This is something that I have wanted literally since I was like 15, 16. And I know that if 15, 16-year-old me was looking at me now, he’d be like, ‘Yo that guy is sick as f**k. He did it. I want to be like that guy!’ So – it’s a full circle thing. And I’m really grateful and honored that the fans chose me, that XXL chose me.”
Just last week, Golden offered up his XXL Freshman Freestyle, an all-sung reflection on the wild path his life has taken. Opening with “Let me introduce myself, nice guy turned into a player,” the track also casts him as a “good kid turned into a beast.” “But that’s not necessarily ‘beast’ in a negative connotation,” he explains. “That’s more like saying, ‘He’s a beast’ in sports. It’s more just how passionate I am for this music that I am making. And as far as being a ‘player,’ I wouldn’t consider myself a player, because that kind of insinuates purposely playing with people’s emotions, and shit like that. And I’m not, but I think it’s the best word to kind of describe the kind of ‘going with the wind’ lifestyle that I live.”
The song concludes with the croon, “So let’s go to El Dorado”, a reference to Golden’s in-the-works debut album El Dorado. Golden considers the freestyle the most “personal” music he’s released since last year’s “A Lot to Lose,” and a taste of what’s to come with the LP. “Something I’m really proud of with this album, El Dorado,” he says, “is that I feel like I am baring more of myself, with my audience and with the world, than I have before.” That’s something, because for all his Midas touch with irresistible melodies and hooks, a finesse with lyrics, one thing Golden is not particularly known for is baring his soul, preferring upbeat good times to overt vulnerability.
“Don’t worry! I’m gonna have the upbeat songs for the fans too!,” he is quick to add. “But my fans give me a lot. And I think it’s only right to give back and let them in on my life. To connect deeper, you know? That’s how you really form connections in music, and in life, is having a little bit of vulnerability and offering something where people can accept me for who I am. And if not? F**k em!”
"With this music s**t, you have to keep proving yourself over and over and over again before someone even thinks about listening to what you have to say as an artist."
From an early age, Golden says, performing came naturally to him. It was noticed by casting agents when as a young kid he acted in commercials for Honda and Blue Diamond Almonds, and his music videos regularly showcase his comedic acting skills. At the risk of sounding like a sleazy Hollywood agent, he has that “it” quality that you saw in a young Will Smith or Miley Cyrus – a charisma and confidence that can’t be taught. He started making music at 14, at the encouragement of his mentor, SF rapper and entrepreneur Paypa Boy, and developed a taste for business early on. He attended a high-achieving high school and says he was the type of kid to not study for a test but still know he was gonna ace it. Early on he even dreamed of becoming a hedge fund manager, though that’s a road he now says he’s quite happy not to have taken – “I probably would have hated working 80-hour weeks and having to crunch numbers every day.”
The pivotal moment for him, sonically, came with discovering the wonders of Auto-Tune on the 2018 track “Ballin’ Like Shareef” – title inspired by Shareef O’Neal, son of NBA legend Shaquille, and a friend of a friend. The song opened up a whole new world. “The studio I was at for probably the first six months to a year of making music, they didn’t have live Auto-Tune, so I couldn’t really experiment with it,” he explains. “But once I was given that tool? It was like you just gave a painter a paintbrush, and this painter had been painting with like sticks for years, you know?”
“Shareef” led to writing “Valentino,” and from there it was off to the races. Support from and collaboration with producer D.A. Doman (d.a. got that dope) led to his Columbia deal, signed only a few months into his first semester at USC. As his music was taking off, with “Valentino” catching fire, rather than drop all his courses, he cleverly kept enrolled in one through the spring of 2019, to maintain his room and board. Before he finally dropped out (he took a leave of absence and can return to the school within ten years if he chooses), he did leave the Trojan community a parting gift: the frat-ready, chant-along “Bitch I Go to USC”, a rowdy soundtrack to the admissions scandal unfolding at the time.
If the City of Angels, to quote the song, is where he has his “fun”, and where he’s living out musical dreams, it’s the high-priced City by the Bay where he was raised. The past 20 years – Golden’s life, in effect – have seen tech turn San Francisco from merely expensive to obscenely so, a gilded city of super-haves and a handful of remaining have-nots. Golden’s family was not wealthy, something he discusses bluntly.
“In San Francisco, the poverty line is a hundred thousand dollars,” he says. “And we definitely were not making even close to a hundred thousand dollars. The only reason I was able to grow up in San Francisco was because we had lived there so long that we had rent control. I think my parents pay like 1,300 dollars a month, for a house. But if we were to just move into it now? It would be like 10,000 a month! I was just really fortunate to have parents who worked really hard, and kept me busy, so that I didn’t even know I grew up in the hood ‘til I was 10, 11, 12 years old.”
But in Golden’s view, the greatest gift of being a child of California’s most cosmopolitan metropolis is something you can hardly put a price on. “I think the best thing about growing up in San Francisco is experiencing such a diverse range of cultures,” he says. “Like, I ate every food under the rainbow, I saw every race of people, every sexuality, and I just think it made me very open-minded, and very tolerant. And I’m very thankful for that now.”
The kid from the Golden State with the Golden name who has a gold record on his wall for “City of Angels” (in addition to a platinum one for “Valentino”) was long ago given a particular nickname by Spanish-speaking co-workers of his mom, a name that will soon serve as the title of his debut full-length. “They would call me ‘El Dorado’ which means ‘the golden one’, or the golden city, in [Spanish conquistador] mythology,” he explains. “So, for me this is something that has held meaning in my life before, but it also ties into where I grew up, the City by the Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s very much the golden city. So I’m trying to combine this idealistic world in my head with elements of my past, and just to create something that’s really aesthetically pleasing and dope, but I also want it to have meaning.” It’s a theme rich with possibilities for a live show: Gold coins? A vintage gold Cadillac El Dorado? Maybe, I suggest, dancers in gold body paint? “No, you’re on it! Are you reading my mind or something?” he laughs. “Yeah, I would love to have some dancers in gold body paint, some jungle-type thing, a little Indiana Jones vibes maybe coming in there too!”
Golden figures the LP is about two songs away from finished, and should be out in early 2021, “when the fans are thirsty for it,” after two or three more singles. Other than that, and a more confessional bent, he will only say to expect the unexpected. “Yo, I’ve shown I can make a rock song, I can make a pop song, I can make a hip-hop song, I can make an emo rap song,” he asserts. “But now it’s like, how can I take the best elements of all those different sounds, and put them together to have something cohesive? And that’s really what I feel like El Dorado is for me. It’s me pushing my own new genre into the world, and just creating good music. I mean, the fact that there’s n**gas in the hood bumping “City of Angels”? To me, that’s incredible! That’s like pushing the culture, and opening people’s minds to stuff they’ve never heard.”