There is no artist I’ve listened to more this year than Detroit’s Boldy James, which is quite a compliment to pay to someone you didn’t know in 2019. With a couple projects that mostly flew under the radar in the preceding nine years, Boldy announced himself in 2020 across three proper albums. These records paint a gripping encapsulation of his life, environment, and evolution from dramatically different but consistently excellent musical angles. Production is handled by just one producer per project, giving each a distinct mood and deliberate sonic identity. The result is a three-act domination that condenses what could be a career for many artists into a single, unexpected year.
ACT I: THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA
“When I first started rapping, me being from Detroit, they always stressed that nobody would take your music serious if you weren’t as serious as the music you were creating.” – Boldy James
Act I saw Boldy open 2020 with a statement, slamming his gauntlet on the table and rising above the fiery crucible of the eclectic Detroit rap scene by linking up with The Alchemist for his third project shepherded by the legendary producer. An Alchemist project brings instant expectations in the ‘90s revivalist corner of the rap world, along with his immediately recognizable signatures. Clever samples, immersive soundscapes, and scene-setting interludes are shaped to push Boldy’s abilities while still giving him space to imprint each instrumental with his own style. As reinforced in Acts II and III, Boldy responds well across THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA to the structure and guidance of a single producer; in a way, the workmanlike consistency of Boldy’s flow gives a skilled producer more space to create evocative and distinct instrumentals behind him.
Befitting an album dropped from Detroit in February, The Alchemist layers bleak, mournful, and sinister sounds behind Boldy’s visceral rhymes. Command of flow is most easily noticed when the rapper speeds up, and command of rhyme is most obvious when the rapper starts to show out. Boldy’s command is more subtle, more deliberate. His deadpan, metronomic flow leaves him no room for awkwardness, no space to massage his words to fit the tempo. When you strip out flair, every misstep is magnified. Boldy never missteps though, clearly enunciating and delivering vivid detail in a conversational, deeply engaging style. On the mesmerizing “Surf and Turf,” Boldy appropriately raps with a wave-like cadence, letting his bars ebb and flow against one another. It befits his regretful descriptions of a son who doesn’t think his dad loves him because his dad is weary from a life spent looking over one shoulder in the streets. His flow lends the track’s cascading melody additional musicality and an effortlessly smooth rhythm. Vince Staples contributes a skillful verse with his typically sharp flow, making the track one of the year’s most synergistic collaborations. “Scrape the Bowl” achieves similar heights just a track later, but through grimy, diamond-hard coke raps. The instrumental is a lumbering terror, full of ominous percussion and sparse keys, which Boldy and Benny the Butcher lay waste to.
Authenticity plays a critical role in street rap, and as Boldy stated, Detroit doesn’t suffer frauds and exaggeration. “Scrape the Bowl” and THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA at large succeed by lavishing verses with cinematic detail, to the point you can see the chipped concrete from bullet ricochets, smell the cocaine stashed in the ceiling, and feel the weariness and paranoia of a dealer. Though the aforementioned features and an appearance by fellow Midwest titan Freddie Gibbs provide legitimacy by association, Boldy indisputably carries the project, turning in dark highlight after dark highlight. The six-track run that starts with “Surf and Turf” and ends at “S.N.O.R.T.” is one of the strongest chunks of rapping I’ve heard in years, anchored by the bouncy “Pinto” and the arresting momentum of “Slow Roll.” If THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA announces Boldy’s arrival and demonstrates his accumulation of skill to date, then Act II would go on to show us his roots, and deliver his most personal material.
Act II: MANGER ON MCNICHOLS
“I learned how to be comfortable within the confinements of my truth. Whatever it took in the music for me to stress and illustrate my truth, then that’s how I went about it.” – Boldy James
Boldy’s second project of the year, MANGER ON MCNICHOLS, is a total departure from THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA, somehow making the latter album feel ordinary by comparison. It is at once an intentional and incidental look at the evolution of Boldy James the artist, recorded over an eight-year period under the tutelage of Detroit legend Sterling Toles. To understand the incidental side, any listen of this album should begin with a complete read of the fascinating notes Toles penned to accompany the release. His story lends every word Boldy raps on the album additional weight and credibility, while explaining how the album came to sound as magnificent as it does. Toles recounts how frequent flooding of the studio in his mother’s basement, which he had cultivated as a neighborhood safe space near the Detroit River, led a wide range of musicians to appear on the record. This transformed a set of beats to the complex, dynamic compositions that reside on MANGER ON MCNICHOLS, consistently forcing Boldy outside his comfort zone into a space of creative catharsis.
You can hear this process play out on the heart-wrenching reflection on his relationship with his mother “Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy),” or in the breathless “Got Flicked (The Rebirth),” as Boldy spills emotion as if to heal from the act of rapping. MANGER ON MCNICHOLS stands out amongst its high-level comparisons, too blunt and street-focused to be lumped in with jazz rap, yet too melodic and dynamic to be another gangsta record. Nothing I’ve heard on a rap album sounds quite like it, from the fluttering, gorgeous flutes of “Welcome to 76” to the masterful drumming backing “B.B. Butcher.” The circumstances and the sheer time required to create this singular album intertwine the strengths of Toles and Boldy inseparably, each elevating the other’s craft to truly stunning effect. Act II is a triumph, and the culmination of years of work finally paying off.
ACT III: THE VERSACE TAPE
“Releasing your truths can save you… I just get in my music bag, and it keeps me sane; it’s my little bit of happiness and sunshine.” – Boldy James
Act III puts a glittering bow on an incredible year of music for Boldy James. For his efforts, Buffalo rap kingpin Westside Gunn bestowed upon him a coveted Griselda Records chain, christening a partnership that was almost painfully obvious. Boldy is the perfect addition to the Griselda stable, a collective of grimy artists from cold northern cities who toiled in obscurity with great patience to reap the fruits of their labor. He’s more grounded and technically proficient than West, whose descriptions of street life verge on magical realism and whose flows can go from laconic to utterly unstructured waves of gun-sound ad-libs. He shares the tenacity of Conway the Machine, but his voice lends itself to a broader range of production than the sinister chill of Conway’s own Alchemist blueprints. He’s a calmer, more measured drug dealer than the guttural aggression of Benny the Butcher, though both claim a high level of technical proficiency. On paper and on wax, Griselda and Boldy James are a match made in coke heaven.
THE VERSACE TAPE serves as both the full-length production debut of former Vine star Jay Versace and James’ Griselda Records debut, and it sounds like Boldy was able to breathe freely at last. The cold backdrop of THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA and the jazzy complexity of MANGER ON MCNICHOLS melt away into the warmth and languid pacing of THE VERSACE TAPE’s beats; it’s gratifying to hear Boldy appear to relax, especially after the content of the previous albums. He even starts to show a bit of humor, devoting an entire song to a single exceptional NBA reference on “Brick Van Exel.” The fuzzy saxophone melody of “Maria” and the vintage, big band instrumental of “Long Live Julio” continue to show the listener a different side of Boldy, a positivity and calm that befits the coronation that the album represents.
It’s been a rewarding ride to watch what felt like an entire career arrive, evolve, and reach its peak in 2020. Boldy’s music can fit any mood; it rewards focused listening as much as it can be enjoyed at a surface level. Above all else, Boldy’s 2020 arc is hopeful and sincere in a way that few commercial endeavors are. His rhymes are no respite from the ongoing horror of this year, but instead a necessary reminder that there are still beautiful things to appreciate out there.