Album Review: Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson

[ALC; 2021]

There was a time when Boldy James’ output was as deliberate as his patient flow. Following his first project with The Alchemist, all the way back in 2013, he was essentially quiet, beyond a trio of mixtapes that flew very below the radar. Caught between the possibilities of a music career and the immediate availability of his, shall we say, less legal hustle in his home city of Detroit, there was a genuine possibility that his rapping would stop before it ever got going in earnest.

All that changed last year. Fully committing himself to his craft, James released not only the best hip hop project of the year in the peerless, grim, and supremely focused The Price of Tea in China, but also an esteemed jazz-rap experiment in the form of Manger on McNichols. Beyond even that, 2020 saw him join up with the ‘it’ crew, Griselda, releasing yet another project for their imprint, The Versace Tape. As if all that wasn’t enough, he capped off the year with a breezy, effortlessly strong victory lap, Real Bad Boldy. Seemingly all of a sudden, one of hip hop’s most elusive figures became one of its hardest working.

He’s been more patient in 2021. He has good reason: knowing just how well he’s set himself up, he’s made sure to deliver exactly the right statement to follow up his banner, eye-catching year. That moment has finally arrived in the form of his third full-length (fourth if you count an EP) collaboration with The Alchemist.

Bo Jackson is at once both a true companion to their prior album and entirely different beast. James is as focused as ever, feeling like a viper poised to strike on the mic, his ‘grimmer Guru’ flow perfected to the point of constricting a track entirely to his will. He hasn’t surrendered an ounce of his perspective, sticking to his lived-in tales of the drug trade and close calls. At the same time, however, his now supreme sense of victory roosts over affairs. He’s well aware of the precedent he’s set, snickering on “Speed Trap” that he “Might drop a new EP every 3 months / the GOAT got these n***as goin’ broke tryna keep up.”

To house this newfound grandeur, The Alchemist has expanded the sound of the album ever outward, essentially leaving behind the tightened claustrophobia of The Price of Tea in China. It makes for an album that’s both exactly what you expected – and wanted – and entirely surprising. Sonically speaking, it’s unlike anything in James’ discography to date. Put simply, it’s a kingly affair, regal and triumphant, the producer all but laying out the red carpet before its sovereign narrator.

Although, almost as if to push back at that very notion, James has grown darker than ever. His verses are more robust and descriptive, as he seems to feel each track could be his last chance to get out the endless thoughts on his mind. This push and pull – the warmth of The Alchemist’s production and the fatigued menace of James’ voice and words – form the backbone of Bo Jackson, making for a truly unique, stellar journey, beguiling and ominous at once. James puts it best himself: “These n***as ain’t cut from my cloth, cuz I’m steel wool.”

Seeming to take that as a challenge, or simply picking up on the energy of the moment, the album’s guests all bring their primest A game, with each and every voice making a memorable appearance. It’s a delight to hear James and Benny the Butcher going back and forth yet again after Price of Tea highlight “Scrape The Bowl”, as much as it is to hear Earl Sweatshirt and Roc Marciano (the latter of whom offers one of the album’s very finest verses) drop by directly following each other. “Fake Flowers”, meanwhile, reunites the Fetti pairing of Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs with The Alchemist (not to even mention Covert Coup, Alfredo, and so on), with Gibbs going directly for the throat in a verse that’s blunt and hilarious by turns (“Michael Jackson ain’t dead, he live in my guest house”). Even Stove God Cook$, limited to a simple chorus, makes a real impression.

As grave as it is grand, Bo Jackson is an album that feels deceptively immediate. The Alchemist has opened the doors wide on this one, inviting us in without restraint, right into the awaiting jaws of Boldy James’ slickly sinister, bubbling vision. As he emerges in a more empowered position than ever, a barb on “E.P.M.D.”, intended for his opponents, could as readily apply to anyone in rap not in his circle: “I ain’t run off with your work: bitch, I took it.” As he spews out threats, regrets, and prideful (not to mention more than earned) gloating by turns, we’re sucked into the inviting, destructive vortex. It’s nothing to be trifled with.