Album Review: Boldy James – Real Bad Boldy

[Real Bad Man; 2020]

2020 has undoubtedly been the year of Boldy James. It’s been drilled into our brains for good reason because several still aren’t getting the memo. With three releases previously under his belt in 2020, and likely something right around the corner, Boldy’s capping off his breakthrough year with Real Bad Boldy, another release that highlights his penchant for diverse collaboration. Four releases, four different producers: The Alchemist, Sterling Toles, Jay Versace, and now Real Bad Man; each collaboration highlighting a different aspect of the Michigan rapper’s talent.

Real Bad Boldy isn’t just a victory lap after the good but somewhat looser Versace Tape from August, its entire composition comes across more toned-down and modernized. With Manger on McNichols, James was unearthing a shelved project, and with the rushed Versace Tape arriving to simply highlight his signing to Griselda, Real Bad Boldy establishes itself as a proper ‘debut’ even if it’s simply a mixtape per Boldy. At under 30 minutes, the tape naturally marries the relaxed production of Real Bad Man to Boldy’s pacing. Real Bad Boldy sets up its own perimeters and stays within those confines, much like Manger did, but carrying less diversity than The Price of Tea in China.

This isn’t simply leftovers from a stellar year, and it’s no evermore either. Real Bad Boldy stands by itself and is markedly different in almost every aspect to its predecessors. It’s lighter in tone, and Real Bad Man’s production on standouts like “Light Bill” give the rapper’s style a complementary lounge-rap lacing, while Boldy never misses a beat in his gritty imagery; “Cook a whole situation, twenty-four minutes / Chain heavy as my bag, quarter brick of glass / quick to burn the turnpike with a brick and a half.” In recent interviews, James has referenced Real Bad Boldy as a reflection on his life before being a rapper. With a tremendous gap between releases from 2013 to 2020, it would appear he’s making up for lost time with this latest endeavor. The copious drug stories aren’t worn as a badge of honor like some, but simply as a release of these hardships plaguing many in Detroit.

“Failed Attempt” shows off more of Boldy’s versatility in delivery. He crams so much into his verses without losing any of his rhythm, which makes him one of rap’s best when it comes to pacing and vivid imagery. His gruesome proclivities aren’t sunshiny, but they’re paired with Real Bad Man’s warming beats for an odd but intriguing juxtaposition. While it’s violence he raps about on “Failed Attempt” – “Clutchin’ with big apes, like, “Who we finna rob?”  / Burning blue cookies, slappin fifties in them nine-Ms” – it’s sonically underlined by a subtle strained organ in the back that doesn’t interfere. Boldy’s gritty depictions aren’t worn like gold stars, these are scars: physical, emotional, and psychological.

Real Bad Boldy is easily his most accessible work to date, as it veers towards standard structures; he’s using verse-chorus-verse-chorus on multiple entries. “Little Vicious” is a prime example, as he reverts to a braggadocios brute, rapping “I’m a big dangerous, you’re just a little vicious” but delivering it in such a way that it’s catchy enough to get picked up as a tattoo scribe one day. Later on, during “Held Me Down” he promotes a slightly more positive outlook with “Tapdancin’ on the work, thinkin “feet don’t fail me now”,” while harmonizing with the “oooh’s” that run behind him throughout. It’s this kind of marriage between lightness and grit that sets Real Bad Boldy apart from his more visceral albums this year. The subject matter may still be heavy, but Boldy’s making it more subtle this time around.