Boldy James is making up for lost time. The Detroit emcee released his debut album My First Chemistry Set in 2013 and then went another seven years without delivering another, dropping a handful of EPs and mixtapes here and there in the interim. It wasn’t until 2019’s Boldface, a 15-minute collaboration with prolific producer The Alchemist, that James reemerged with a sense of purpose and focus, its succinct five tracks offering up some of his strongest storytelling backed with beats that filled in the necessary atmosphere for those street yarns to feel more vivid, real and dangerous. And since then it’s been one career-best candidate after another: Alchemist collab The Price of Tea in China, best-of-year masterpiece Manger on McNichols, and Real Bad Man team-up Real Bad Boldy.
James is at once an adaptable collaborator and a singular personality, and no producer understands that better than The Alchemist, who once again proves himself a natural foil to Boldy’s pitch-dark crime raps on the outstanding Bo Jackson. The two artists’ third collaboration in less than two years finds their synergy at its strongest, James’ narrations through trap houses and trap doors rendered with a psychedelic surrealism as much as razor’s edge anxiety. Boldy James can pull off a gripping gangster rap record in his sleep, but Bo Jackson is something else entirely.
Alchemist establishes a tone of tightrope tension from the opening twinkle of piano on “Double Hockey Sticks,” and that’s only a baseline, subsequent tracks occasionally ramping up in adrenaline but never anything close to relaxed. And how could they be? The sound of the album is reflective of the kind of landmine-ridden landscape that James describes on stark, paranoid standouts like “Steel Wool”: “N*ggas shot and killed my mans, I ain’t been getting no sleep/My n*gga silencing those lambs, them n*ggas Little Bo Peep.” In any one of the scenes that Boldy describes, one slight move could end in tragedy or incarceration. And in moments like the breathtaking bad-acid spiral of “Speed Trap,” the intensity is almost too much to take, James giving a play by play on a white-knuckle ride on the run from the law: “Burned up the turnpike on my third strike/State troopers to the left, next exit, merge right/Got behind us, but they should’ve flicked the car behind us/If they knew what was in that Honda, probably serve life.“
In its strongest moments, Bo Jackson is like a stunningly unsettling hallucination, with tracks such as the soulfully melancholy “Photographic Memories” and the discordant jazz chords of “Fake Flowers,” less boom bap than Alc’s recent Freddie Gibbs collaboration but not quite as abstract as his recent team-up with Armand Hammer. It’s accessible without being conventional, intensity cut with melody, and in its best moments just outside of comfortable. With his eye for detail and insomniac unease, James is always in control even as the world he inhabits seems to lose all sense of stable footing.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.