The cold has an alluring effect on Boldy James’ music. Freezing temperatures coax honesty and regret out of the corners of Detroit and New York, from which his style originates. Boldy has seen enough street corners, enough drugs, enough pools of blood to know when to flaunt his battle scars and when to let a beat breathe for us to contemplate his tales. We can feel Boldy James’ sound in our bones.
On his latest project, the Alchemist-produced The Price of Tea In China, the close calls dotting Boldy’s music inspire more reflection. “When everything you loved, you lost to the gun / From all that you done done, but down the line that could cost you a son,” he says in a gulp of breath on opener “Carruth.” The walls of life are closing in on our narrator. Boldy reflects on old friendships lost to violence (“Phone Bill”) and mentions a son a handful of times. Naturally, the stakes for his future are higher, but Tea isn’t preoccupied with legacy. Awareness of Boldy’s mortality inspires him to dig further into his past.
The stone-faced recollections Boldy and Alc introduced on 2013’s My 1st Chemistry Set continue seven years later on Tea. Like fellow cocaine war horses, Vince Staples and Benny The Butcher—both of whom feature on the album—Boldy is at his best when his eye for detail and sense of humor close the gap between past and present. While his storytelling chops are as visceral and gritty as ever (“Drive the Rolly buss buss, I ain’t talkin’ Flipmode” from “Pinto”), Boldy’s willingness to alternate flows helps to keep the record lively.
Alchemist’s varied beat pack meets Boldy halfway, tossing sci-fi synths (“Slow Roll”) and drumless loops (“Grey October”) in with his usual muted boom-bap. Chemistry Set’s songs ran the risk of blurring together in a monochromatic haze, a problem the production on Tea helps to circumvent. Both men have grown over the course of the last seven years: They’re as comfortable congealing on the blacktop of “Giant Slide” as they are at letting each other’s work to create rap DNA strands on songs like “Scrape The Bowl.”
Alchemist has secured his legacy, but The Price of Tea In China feels like a level-up for Boldy James. He thrives over Alchemist’s production, his words holding more weight and feeling more lived-in. Time’s arrow has slowed to allow Boldy the spoils of war, even if just for a moment. “Just last month, I could barely pay my phone bill / Now I’m sippin’ good, praying that my cup don’t spill,” he confides on closing song “Phone Bill.”
Best song: “Pinto”
Best bar: “Put the gun to his lips like some fuckin Carmex”
Best moment: Boldy and Benny’s call-and-response on “Scrape The Bowl”