The four collaborative projects Boldy James released over last year—The Price Of Tea In China with producer Alchemist in February, Manger on McNichols with jazz musician Sterling Toles in July, The Versace Tape with comedian-turned-producer Jay Versace in August, and Real Bad Boldy with the music/fashion collective Real Bad Man in December—appointed different set dressings to James’s stone-faced corner-boy tales. He doesn’t recall memories of stained prison windows and being dehydrated on drug runs so much as he actively relives them, every fragment a scar on his brain. The sheer amount of stories he has, combined with his deep pool of references and relaxed voice, makes him a deceptively capable rapper, switching flows and speeds on a dime. “I let the beat tell me what to do,” he once told me during an interview with DJBooth. “I got enough game and life experiences to fill in the blanks.”
Of all the producers he’s worked with over the last two years, none have enhanced his raps more than the Alchemist. Their relationship stretches back to at least the early 2010s, but the duo reunited as Alchemist’s beats began morphing into more psychedelic patterns. Tea In China brought a widescreen flair to the double act first established on 2013’s My 1st Chemistry Set and 2019’s Boldface, with Boldy bending his memories around the corners of Alchemist’s smokey creations. Bo Jackson, the duo’s latest collaboration, continues to match Boldy’s descriptive paranoia against Alchemist’s ever-expanding palette.
Boldy’s ability to switch between passive and active voice during his stories is staggering. Bo Jackson’s most explicit example is the opening song “Double Hockey Sticks,” which begins with a jump from his jewelry “cuttin’ up like I’m Mike Myers” to an isolated memory of bagging drugs in the basement like the Dungeon Family. The jumpy beat-switch midway through telegraphs a new direction without spoiling the specifics. Over Alchemist’s wailing siren and syncopated drums, Boldly stitches together a grandmother’s advice, successful bail hearings, and laceless Dolce & Gabbana sneakers into a wavy tapestry. He doesn’t dwell on his victory over the court system, he glosses over it like a found item on a grocery list, just another footnote on the path to his next mission. The story of “Double Hockey Sticks” is fleet and nonlinear, drawing the ear with trap rhythms that keep pace with Alchemist’s equally erratic style.
This is the great trick of Boldy and Alchemist’s union: as opposed to his more formalist boom-bap with rappers like Prodigy or Conway the Machine, Alchemist’s work with Boldy is dynamic and kaleidoscopic. That’s not to say that the boom-bap and bare loops are gone, but Boldy always tests their boundaries. He waltzes through the creaky piano of “E.P.M.D.,” slightly staggering his delivery in the middle of what seems like a predictable scheme. The drums on “Speed Trap” and “Flight Risk” sputter and pop in unexpected places, and Boldy skips effortlessly across them. Bo Jackson isn’t as baroque as Alchemist’s work on Armand Hammer’s Haram, but it certainly taps into the same playful and melancholy atmosphere.
No matter what kind of sounds Boldy rides throughout the project, his words cut through the clutter. His monotone voice amplifies the details in his writing: every lost friend, every Xanax popped to forget the unforgettable, every second taken to thank God he made it out of the life he was born into. “All this pressin’ is depressin’, the pressure is still pressin’/Against a nigga flesh, it’s beyond measure,” he says on closing track “Drug Zone.” On “Illegal Search & Seizure,” an entire friendship—from playing Double Dragon and smoking weed with a friend to dealing with the fallout of said friend snitching years later—plays out in just under two minutes. Like Vince Staples on his recent self-titled album, Boldly’s sharp eye says more than a change in voice or a maudlin vocal sample ever could: the pain is in the details, no matter how numb they may sound. It’s gripping to the point of paralysis.
Much of the credit for Bo Jackson’s stellar mood-setting will go to Alchemist for continuing to push the boundaries of the modern hip-hop underground, and some of these beats are among his best (“Turpentine” and “Photographic Memories,” in particular, are masterclasses in sample collage). But Boldy James consistently stands ten toes next to his legendary partner. In fact, he’s only getting better. A producer with Eminem, Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Earl Sweatshirt, billy woods, and Teejayx6 on speed-dial doesn’t just work with anybody. Boldy’s been holding his own for a decade, and Bo Jackson is more proof that the spark of their creative reunion was no fluke.
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