Things That Go Bump in the Psyche: A Critical Look at What Makes Boldy James So Compelling

Dash Lewis deciphers the Detroit veteran rapper's deadpan delivery, his 2020 three-peat and Boldy's generational talent.
By    April 21, 2021
Photo courtesy of Alex Oh

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Dash Lewis learned the Fibonacci Sequence before he learned the keys.

There’s a moment about a third of the way through the August 4, 2020, episode of The Crate 808 Podcast in which Boldy James calmly details a friend’s murder. “My man Frankie,” he says in a thick Detroit drawl, “got killed some years back and they found him in a trash can with his dick in his mouth.” Just seconds prior Boldy had been telling a lengthy story about recounting how many times he had to steal or purchase Illmatic. The host of The Crate 808, Kambi Thandi, audibly recoils from Boldy’s sudden candor. On cue, Boldy segues into a story about hearing Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt for the first time.

This brief but memorable moment highlights exactly what is so compelling about Boldy James’s music. Born James Clay Jones III, the Concreature writes hyper-detailed street vignettes that move swiftly from braggadocio to brutality. You’re just as likely to miss a startling image as a bone-dry joke. Though Boldy’s voice rarely rises above a stoned murmur, the constant classification of his cadence as “dead-eyed” does a disservice to his understated dynamism. At his core, Boldy James is an amalgam of many of the defining characteristics of Detroit rap refracted through a East Coast lens, blending his earliest influences with fiercely local identity, all through his sharp, detailed writing and monotone delivery.

One of the most important cities in America’s musical history, Detroit’s rap scene has long been fascinating. Early Detroit hip-hop production echoed its electro and techno roots — the sounds largely derived from funk and the motorik music of Kraftwerk. The synthetic, gridded-beats approach mirrored the repetitive rhythms of the auto industry, the main driver of the city’s commerce. Once rappers entered the mix, initially simply as party-starters, those mechanical, quantized rhythms were humanized, softening the rigidity of electronic production.

As Detroit hip-hop developed its own identity outside of the coastal spheres of influence, that rhythmic push-pull got stronger. Producers like J Dilla and Black Milk built more swing into their grooves, allowing rappers like Elzhi and Finale to fill the more staccato, piston-firing role. These days, producers like Helluva, JayGotThePlug, and David Wesson provide tightly quantized, trap-indebted beats for rappers like Tee Grizzley, Icewear Vezzo, and Cash Kidd to careen wildly across.

Boldy approaches these disparate flows from a more curatorial angle. While clearly influenced by the 90’s East Coast sound, his roots always remain in Detroit. Take, for instance, “BOLD,” the opening track on Boldy’s first collaboration with The Alchemist, My 1st Chemistry Set. Over a mid-tempo beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Alchemist’s records with Prodigy, Boldy’s eighth-note flow hits the downbeats hard, providing a metronome around which Alchemist’s production can freely swirl. On “Dirt Nap,” a cut from 2017’s underrated EP, The Art of Rock Climbing, Boldy channels his Detroit contemporaries. Blurring the edges of the rigid trap production, Boldy employs the manic, rushing flow currently dominating modern Detroit rap with unwavering nonchalance. He doesn’t stress out. He simply shows up, raps his ass off, and moves on.

Beyond its interesting relationship with rhythm, the Detroit rap scene has always been populated by incredibly technical writers. The aforementioned Finale pens dense thickets of multisyllabic rhymes, often carrying rhyme schemes throughout entire verses. Danny Brown yelps out riveting scenes of psychological horror marked with incisive punchlines. And elder statesmen like Elzhi and Royce da 5’9” make the most unintuitive rhyme schemes feel light and easy by plucking mind-bending combinations of words seemingly out of thin air and using them to build immersive worlds.

At first glance, Boldy’s nonchalant flow seems like the main takeaway from his music. It’s the reason the “dead-eyed” descriptor has stuck through so much writing about his work. But upon closer listening, the strength of his writing takes shape. Synthesizing his love for Nas’s poetics with the influence from his Detroit contemporaries, Boldy zooms into the minute details of whatever he’s rapping about, dressing the scene with deceptively complex rhyme patterns.

On “JIMBO,” taken from the 2013 EP, Grand Quarters, internal and external multisyllabic slant rhymes tumble over one another as Boldy details some of the more quotidian aspects of drug trafficking: “Rental car speeding with a cake taped to the door/ I’m hitting your region whipping H, weighing up blow.” It takes a few listens to grasp that he’s rhyming entire bars with each other, but once it clicks, you realize that he’s done it for the entire song. This kind of masterful, hiding-in-plain-sight writing is a key characteristic found throughout Boldy James’s career.

Though Boldy’s production choices have swung wildly from record to record, his sharp writing and unconcerned inflection remain constant, providing the listener with solid ground as he moves from experiment to experiment. His penchant for pushing his own boundaries began with his first mixtape, Trappers Alley: Pros and Cons, a 28-track opus that never sat still but remained thoroughly engaging thanks to Boldy’s unwavering delivery. His stint on Mass Appeal saw him move from the lush boom-bap of My First Chemistry Set to House of Blues, a trap album produced for the most part by Atlanta’s Winners Circle collective. Both are very strong records and neither feels like a strain on Boldy’s abilities. He occupies the same kind of space as fellow Midwesterner Freddie Gibbs — a rapper fully formed, able to get different styles to meet him where he stands without sacrificing his vision. Simply put, he can rap over anything.

Most recently, Boldy realized the full extent of his versatility. In 2020, he released four wildly different albums, all of which ran the gamut from really good to near-masterpiece. By pairing with a single producer for each record, Boldy was able to lean in simultaneously to both his staid delivery and desire to experiment, cementing that the “Boldy James sound” comes directly from the man himself, not his choice of collaborators.

The first of his 2020 records, The Price of Tea in China, saw him once again link up with The Alchemist. A darker affair, TPOT feels like My 1st Chemistry Set was left on the burner too long, boiling out the impurities and reducing to a much more potent version. It’s a bleakly psychedelic album, filled with tightly coiled, frigid tension as Boldy trudges through the Michigan winter maintaining a steely thousand-yard stare.

While Boldy’s made a habit of shouting out various Detroit corners or ancillary drug trade characters throughout his discography, TPOT zooms in even further, cataloging minute details of dangerous situations with harrowing precision. On “Slow Roll,” he takes in his surroundings, noting the “broken glass [in the] middle of the street.” He sees the “bricks chipped from the ricochet” from a previous shootout.

Elsewhere on the album, his storytelling is less linear but no less specific. On the first verse of the bubbling “Surf & Turf,” Boldly uncorks a dizzying multisyllabic pattern that serves as a platform for a stream-of-consciousness narrative. “Jumped from the porch, hung like a horse, ones with the force,” he drawls into the vaporous beat. “Drunk in a Porsche, trunk full of corpse.” The details whizz by thanks to his emotionless delivery, but the full, dazzling picture comes into clearer view with each repeated listen.

That slow-burning element of surprise is a constant on The Price of Tea in China. On first listen, the album floats by as a gorgeously produced, skillfully rapped entry into the current wave of new wave boom bap aesthetics. However, Boldy’s calm demeanor masks the vast amount of flow experimentation from track to track. He channels the slippery, downbeat-averse flow of his Detroit contemporaries on “Pinto.” On “S.N.O.R.T.,” he accomplishes the rare feat of outshining Freddie Gibbs by marrying his cadence to Alchemist’s kick drum pattern, finding a pocket Gibbs didn’t. Later, he effortlessly slips between double- and triple-time flows on “Mustard,” sounding completely unbothered by the rhythmic change ups. After repeated listens, it becomes clear that The Price of Tea in China is a masterclass of top tier rapping, a document of a highly skilled technician at the peak of his powers.

Boldy’s second LP of 2020, Manger on McNichols, a collaboration with producer Sterling Toles, gives a different shape to that sense of unfolding discovery. Recorded over the past decade plus, the record features Boldy verses from 2007-2010 (plus a couple from 2017). Despite the maximalist production, Manger is a deeply personal, insular record filled with some of Boldy’s most starkly revealing lyrics. And because Boldy’s been more or less fully formed since he appeared with the first Trapper’s Alley mixtape, Manger wouldn’t feel out of place if dropped anywhere in his discography. Arriving so soon after The Price of Tea in China isn’t jarring, but instead works to reinforce the dual strengths of Boldy’s writing and delivery.

Rather than the more cinematic scope of TPOT, Manger finds Boldy working to unwind ideas he has about himself and his origin. He writes a lot about how he grew up on the East Side of Detroit, his strained relationship to his parents, and a burgeoning understanding of the inequalities that push him into the drug trade. Because the verses were recorded over such a long period of time, one can see him tweaking the formula from song to song, perfecting what eventually becomes his signature. His writing isn’t quite as technically proficient but no less direct and impactful. Over the course of Manger, the listener is witness to Boldy James whittling an already strong style into the razor-sharp minimalism displayed on TPOT.

The flows Boldy chooses to employ through the album aren’t necessarily as adventurous as those on TPOT, but they do speak to his influences. Given his love of East Coast rap and that the majority of the vocals were recorded in the early 2000s, it makes a lot of sense that early Boldy James flows feel akin to New York rappers of the time. Most of Manger’s songs feature spacious, open-air cadences similar to Purple Haze-era Cam’ron tracks like “Harlem Streets” or “Bubble Music” that go out of their way to accentuate the rhyme schemes at the end of the bar. When he does break into faster flows, such as the sixteenth-note pulse flexed on “Medusa,” it scans as more Jay-Z circa Vol. 2 than Midwestern fast rappers like Twista or Krayzie Bone.

Boldy’s standard detached delivery mixed with the simplicity of the flows allow the themes to carry serious weight. Rather than the hypnotic intricacies of TPOT that tease out subject matter on repeated listens, the songs on Manger do the inverse. The topics are so raw and upfront and the production so vibrant that it’s sometimes hard to catch how accomplished the writing is. Take, for example, “Mommy Dearest”: Boldy trudges through the organized chaos of the music with a flow that feels like boots in mud, addressing his absent mother with a passage so searing it takes a couple listens to see what he’s doing with the rhyme scheme:

Telling me you was on your way to come see me/
And left me sitting on the porch in the rain, freezing/
Had me feeling like an orphan, the pain stinging/
And getting stung by a hornet ain’t the same, neither.

Beyond the subject matter, however, Manger provides a look into Boldy’s growth as a writer, as the album’s piecemeal construction acts as a document of his process. For example, in “B.B. Butcher,” Boldy explores knotty internal rhyme schemes:

And I’m back for more, Detroit’s ambassador/
Chancellor of the Ambassador Bridge/
To Canada, in the back of that rig/
With some dust cancerous enough to get us maximum bids.

He later untwists those knots into more conventional patterns for huge chunks of “Requiem”:

Wishing they never put his Nana in that nursing home/
Was used to rolling spots, his brodie taught him how to work the phones/
Never kept a lot of company, he did his dirt alone/
Type n—- rock a Phoenix jersey with nothing purple on/
Eleven hundred a zone, we get them chirpies gone/
Little cuz walking down that ‘Nichol, trying to hurry home/
Prepaid call from the clique, that Peewee murder prone/
Shit, he knew something was wrong soon as he heard his tone.

While he’s developing a more technically economic rhyme style, he isn’t sacrificing any of his hyper-detailed realism.

Less than a month after Manger on McNichols, Boldy dropped his first project as a member of Griselda, The Versace Tape. The project retains the introspective aura of Manger as written by 2020 Boldy — he’s looking in the rearview mirror rather than over his shoulder. It’s a much shorter record than his previous two offerings, as five of the ten songs never hit the two-minute mark, dissipating into a sepia-toned haze after a verse or two. In lesser hands, this would feel tossed off, but Boldy’s strengths render The Versace Tape a fully realized project.

Jay Versace’s beats, mostly crumbling jazz loops or twinkling synth grooves, provide a syrupy backdrop for Boldy’s most conversational flows to date. He adopts a loose, slightly-behind-the beat cadence that wraps itself around the beats’ languid rhythms like a rubber band stretching and contracting. Moreover, he tones down his already flat delivery even further, giving the songs a deeply hypnotic quality, as if he’s engaging in automatic writing to bring forth memories long buried. After the intensity of the year’s earlier records, Boldy’s imperturbable delivery feels like a long exhale.

Additionally, his writing remains as sharp as always. The first two lines on “Maria” recall the rhyme-entire-bars style he introduced with “JIMBO” seven years prior: “Weigh the coke, beat the pot, scrape the bowl, bleed the block/Eight below, steaming hot, eighty-four G’s a top.” When he turns away from the more acrobatic rhyme patterns, he revels in the minutiae of the past, reminiscing on “Roxycontin” about his “spot on Strathmoor, behind the Nu Wave off of Sixth and Hubbell” or recalling the deep anxiety of how “everytime [he] met up with the plug [it] felt like a setup” on “Brick Van Exel.” Later in the same song, he marries the two styles: “Touched down in Gainesville, booked a suite with her debit/Serving all these pain pills, they look to me as a medic.” The songs may be short, but the content within is dense and vivid as anything in Boldy’s catalog.

Finally, in December 2020, Boldy released Real Bad Boldy, a ten-track collaboration with Los Angeles streetwear brand and production crew Real Bad Man. It’s a swift and hard-hitting boom bap record and feels like Boldy’s most cogent attempt at synthesizing his East Coast and Detroit influences. Musically, its closest antecedent is Cormega’s The Realness, a post-Golden Age New York rap album replete with gritty storytelling and tangible urgency. Real Bad Boldy features some of the fastest tempos on a Boldy James project and flows that feel right out of CNN’s The War Report or a sped-up Havoc circa The Silent Partner flattened against the Midwestern plains. Perhaps most importantly, Real Bad Boldy shows a side of Boldy James that’s been hidden amongst the noirish vignettes and painfully therapeutic memory-mining: Boldy’s having fun just rapping.

To be clear, Real Bad Boldy isn’t a rappity-raps kind of album—the subject matter still falls well within the bleary-eyed coke rap found throughout his discography. He still mentions hyper-specific Detroit locales and shares stories about friends who may or may not be dead or in jail. And his always-restrained delivery is somehow even more drained of emotion than on previous outings. But, perhaps inspired by the kicked-up tempos and melodic soul chops of Real Bad Man’s production, Boldy gets a little looser with his lyrics.

Take, for example, Real Bad Boldy’s eponymous opening track. It’s a short, one-verse intro song that barely reaches past a minute and a half but thoroughly sets the album’s lightly exuberant tone. Using iterations of the numbers one, two, and three throughout the verse, Boldy makes clear his love of language and all its malleable meanings:

Three strikes and you out/
Pour a deuce in a one-liter Sprite, two stouts/
Three fours of the juice, dropping trays in the two-liter/
One deep in the two-seater/
Counting up pros in the coupe, answer on the third ring/
You second in line, I’m first string/
Fighting two counts of first degree murder at thirteen.

It’s a verse full of the same winter-grey bleakness in which Boldy usually traffics, but it also functions as a wink and a nod, as if to say “I’ve proven my credentials, now let me remind you about how well I can write.”

Playful details pop up all over the record, like the moment Boldy cracks his Pyrex pot while cooking dope and has to “whip it in a jelly jar” on “Light Bill.” Or when he says he hates it when potential customers “finger fuck the bag and never buy none” during “On Ten.” Rather than burying narratives through intricate rhyme schemes or hiding his complex writing through immediate emotional brutality, Real Bad Boldy finds him at his most direct. He’s dryly funny, eagle-eyed, and devastating all at once. Of the four albums Boldy released in 2020, Real Bad Boldy requires the least of the listener but is no less compelling or exciting than the other three. It’s a victory lap for a rapper who’s fully realized his potential without fundamentally changing anything about how he works.

Sitting squarely within the new vanguard of relevant rappers in their mid-to-late-30s, Boldy James seems poised to outlast many, if not most, of his peers. He’s already a seasoned vet in the industry, having risen from a niche Rust Belt curiosity to being scooped up by Nas, one of his biggest influences. Now, after a banner year that resulted in signing with Griselda, the current torch-holders of the boom-bap-and-bars revival, Boldy’s a known quantity. The difference between him and the rest of his contemporaries, Griselda included, is his ability to make slight shifts that deepen his sound. He’s found the freedom to move within the limitations he’s built for himself—namely, his delivery and writing.

Rather than find a shtick and squeeze it until dry, Boldy pivots ever so slightly with each release, not just trying on new styles and sounds, but bringing them into his world rather than the other way around. He’s deft and flexible, able to occupy different parts of the rap universe with ease and grace. It’s exciting to think about where he’ll go next.

On March 6, 2020, Boldy and The Alchemist appeared on an episode of Kenny Beats’s webseries, The Cave. In each episode, Kenny invites a rapper into his studio, makes a bespoke beat based on a couple of keywords or ideas, and gets the rapper to lay a quick verse. The overarching idea behind the series is Kenny’s mantra: D.O.T.S—Don’t Over Think Shit. During the March 6 episode, Kenny’s manic energy and Alchemist’s dry, avuncular vibe get the most screen time while Boldy quietly rolls a blunt and writes on his phone. Once he gets in the booth, he absolutely demolishes. It’s a classic Boldy James verse: you’re dropped on the corner of McClellan and Gratiot, waiting on a package while Boldy keeps his eye focused squarely over his shoulder. Multi-syllabic rhymes flash by and as soon as he’s done, he looks through the window at Kenny and says into the mic, “I dunno, Kenny. I do this a little bit.”

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