Soundcheck: Boldy James & Nicholas Craven’s Story of Survival

In the latest Soundcheck column, Donna-Claire reflects on Boldy James rapping with the most conviction of his his career across Penalty of Leadership, an intimate ode to survival and overcoming...
By    February 14, 2024

Album Cover via Nicholas Craven/Instagram

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All Donna-Claire does is write books and play board games with her wife.

It’s hard to imagine recording a song as striking as “Brand New Chanel Kicks” in a neck brace and wheelchair. But after a near-fatal car accident that left Boldy James temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, his grit and perseverance fueled his physical recovery. So when Boldy mutters an intro over a sample of the haunting news report from the night of the crash, where the news anchor details his injuries and immediate surgery, I realize he isn’t just grateful to be alive and cooking, he’s stunned.

Boldy’s emergence from the wreck defines Penalty of Leadership, his second collaborative full-length with Montreal producer Nicholas Craven. The writing weaves notes on survival with standard Boldy James street missives. Craven’s pensive production turns Leadership into an ode to making it through physical trauma. At times, it feels like he’s scared to touch the tension of having gotten within inches of death and walking away. The most emotive mentions are brisk and suffused with survivor’s guilt: “Counting my blessings / Don’t know why He keep sparin’ me.”

That line brought me back to the first few seconds following waking up from brain surgery at 17. I had an intense awareness that I was alive. My skin worked, each pore allowed gas in and out. I’d made it and I wasn’t sure why. Before I went through the big metal doors to the operating room, I had resigned myself to death.

Waking up, I wasn’t sure I had earned the right. The only solution was to write through it. Boldy seems to feel the same way. Leadership dwells on the complexity of survival. I can’t say for sure if Boldy feels like he didn’t deserve another chance, but I can say that when something is about to be taken from you, that’s usually the best time to reevaluate your priorities.

On Leadership, Boldy raps like life has always been within inches of being stolen away. He’s soft spoken, almost tender, with a way of converting the intangible desperation of the human condition into something substantial. The nonchalant delivery can be mistaken for emotional detachment, but here, Boldy raps with the most conviction of his career.

“Speedy Recovery” details the life of a dealer searching for a support system and coping with heartache. I return to “Straight As” most often, because it laces survivor’s guilt within a more everpresent anxiety about how Boldy was living his life prior to the accident. When he raps, “My head been in a dark place, fed the hook the shark bait / Right before my accident, had took ‘em on a car chase,” I read the bars as having terror baked in.

It’s the presence of the “before” and the “after” of almost dying. Death becomes a schism we somehow cross over against our will. I understand Boldy’s reluctance on Leadership. We’re not built to process death, to let it linger. I remember my ten days spent in the PICU pre-surgery. I went to a smaller hospital just a few days before. They gave me Oxy, the CT scan was clear. I woke up when the drugs wore off. I called my dad into my bedroom–the blackout shades were pulled down with just a sliver of summer light coming in. I was possessed with a vision of the future: if we don’t go to another hospital, I’m going to die in this room. He took me seriously.

An hour later, I was wheeled into a private room at a big hospital in Northern New Jersey. A quick glance at my sodium levels dropping and the headaches I was experiencing led them to the final conclusion: I had to get admitted. My immigrant dad, an engineer and photographer by trade, asked if he could just feed me fries, since sodium is the issue. It’s just salt, what’s the harm?

Their faces turned grave: I had to get admitted. The alternative was more pain, a seizure, and then death. In that order. As they wheeled me into the elevator to go up to the PICU, I looked someone in the eye and said, “just don’t let me die here.” They never replied.

When the barrier between life and death becomes porous, there’s a little part of your brain that atrophies forever. Everyone around me told me I was very calm for someone destined for the operating room. I adopted a sterilized perspective, everything was just a fact, and these details happening unto me was not in my consciousness. Yes, I had a tumor someone my age shouldn’t have even had in the first place. It was there my whole life, and it ruptured before the surgery, causing the pain and sickness.

I hear Boldy wrestling with the after tremors of living in every word on Leadership. When he approaches the accident, he sounds tense. I wouldn’t be shocked if his body was still reliving the accident. I still have phantom pains from the week in PICU. But when I return to “Brand New Chanel Kicks,” and relish in how free that song is, I understand it’s because he stood up from his wheelchair, and regained some sense of self. It’s the gruffness of his voice when he describes himself as “strong.” He’s contending with the “after.” He willed his body back to his artistry. He seems immovable.

When I sat down to write this piece, I tried to dance around the pangs of survival, to not reduce Boldy’s story to a “motherf*cker, we lived” moment. But that is the story, isn’t it? His story, my story, anyone’s, really. It’s about the project of living, of accepting there is no such thing as control. We can’t be prepared; we can’t outsmart the flow of life. We have to face every day in service of what matters.

After my surgery, I promised myself I would write every single day, no matter what, and I would publish books. And I would publish articles. And I would… You get it–it’s value-based living. It’s the idea that we only have ourselves to contend with, and we have to do right by the second chances we are given. That’s what I hear on Penalty of Leadership: a man who appreciates his every present breath.

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