What’s remarkable about Boldy James’ bounty last year is how each of his four records succeeded as a standalone project. February’s The Price of Tea in China, an understated suite produced by prestige-rap mainstay the Alchemist, tunneled into James’ drug dealer psyche in noirish flashes. August’s The Versace Tape was comparably low-stakes, a collection of prismatic two-minute sketches with beats contributed by former Vine star Jay Versace. The wild card was July’s Manger on McNichols, an evocative synthesis of jazz and claustrophobic rhymes—the bulk of which James recorded over a decade ago. All this Rust Belt coke rap is carried by James’ extraordinary presence, instincts, and exposition. Even when trying on different sounds and styles, he never overplays his hand.
In looking at a stretch like this, it’s tempting to try to place James within an established tradition, but none quite fits. At times his affectless poise and seen-it-all tales recall a pre-retirement JAY-Z, but Boldy’s raps aren’t exactly kingpin narratives: He refrains from sweeping cause-and-effect arcs, which makes all the pavement-pounding sound exhausting. One might assign him to the canon of post-Marcberg neoclassical rap, but Roc Marciano’s obsessive detail and acquisitiveness sound practically sociopathic next to Boldy’s survival stories. James is looser than Mobb Deep, less eager-to-please than the punchline-happy Clipse; he orbits the Griselda universe, but they need him more than he needs them.
December’s Real Bad Boldy is a full-length tryst with Real Bad Man, who, per their Bandcamp, “is a crew from Los Angeles that makes clothing but also happens to have fire-ass beats.” The conceit isn’t unprecedented—Conway the Machine recorded an entire tape credited to a streetwear line in 2019—and while I can’t speak to their $60 t-shirts, Real Bad Boldy’s 10 tracks corroborate the latter claim. Paradoxically, it’s James’ most Detroit-sounding record in years, with expressive samples recalling Dilla and Waajeed’s sooty electro-soul. The melodic “Street Shit” is at once upbeat and contemplative, and the cinematic “Held Me Down” loops a mournful vocal track with choppy drums. “Failed Attempt” features a swelling Rhodes piano; James’ brisk imagery (“Parkin’ back-to-back black-on-blacks at the Coliseum/In the trap, we go rack-for-rack, this is not per diem”) feels like flipping through a stack of fuzzy Polaroids.
Structurally, Real Bad Boldy keeps to a static formula. Each track has two verses plus one durable hook, and James’ delivery and syllable placement hardly vary. His general aplomb belies his detailed vignettes, bricks of yola shipped from Pensacola, fishscale that flakes like dry skin. Some moments are positively breezy in light of Manger’s menace and Tea in China’s interrogation, but Real Bad Boldy is grounded in the same narrative authority. Even at his most violent, James maintains a neutral distance, dutifully charting cross-streets and genealogies in a way that makes the episodes feel less like capers and more like a manual that human resources would hand out on your first day. This lends an unusual omniscience to his first-person accounts: Boldy doesn’t exactly glorify a life of crime, but he’s not asking for pity either.
It’s genre fare at its most sure-handed and unadulterated, and the guests—all vivid stylists from New York State—are so devoted to selling drugs they make it sound like a vocation. Stove God Cooks, a leering Roc Marciano protégé from Syracuse, appears on “Thousand Pills,” his verse (“I had the feds tap dancin’ in my ear before Rick Rubin had a beard”) like something relayed over a burner phone. On “Good Foot,” Rochester rappers Mooch and Rigz trade reports of jewel thieves and sculptures molded from cocaine. They’re almost caricatures of ’90s rap villains—Rigz flows like Big L on cough syrup—and while James partakes in the revelry, he stays rooted to the concrete. After Eto outlines another trafficking plot on “Little Vicious,” Boldy sighingly admits, “I was happier when I was poor with my friends.”
James’ meat-and-potatoes craftsmanship doesn’t yield the shiny hooks of Jay’s epics or Marciano’s ornate tapestries, but his 2020 quartet is ideally formatted for his unhurried burrowing. Short of Manger’s audacious vision and Tea in China’s tricky corners, Real Bad Boldy is both an entry point and a crowd-pleaser that suggests an American original: No one sounds quite as comfortable in this milieu.
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