Album Review: Boldy James & The Alchemist – Super Tecmo Bo

[ALC; 2021]

If anything gets an editorial going by November, it’s your general unannounced drop via tweet that an amorphous surprise is going to happen. By that time of the year, writers usually huddle up to figure out what their albums of the year lists look like, what albums they missed out on, what deserves a shout out – just the usual attempt of understanding the past few months via analytical perspective. Sure, a new release can’t impact the past few months, but once you realize how many notorious and legendary albums dropped so late that editorial staffs couldn’t even reflect on them properly, it’s understandable that these sort of drops just cause a lot of hysteria – especially when the involved parties are shrouding themselves in mystery.

So it came with a lot of excitement and a bit of panic when The Alchemist tweeted a suggestion that one of the best albums of 2021 would drop fairly late, leading to chaos and speculation around the BPM watercooler. Could it be the fabled, secret YouTube release with Earl? A project he heard but didn’t collaborate on? All we knew was that it was set to see a release before the new year.

In the end, it was all more simple than we imagined, as the project was revealed a new Boldy James album. Clocking in shortly under 30 minutes and only lasting 9 songs, Super Tecmo Bo could easily be waved away as just a quick throwaway, given we already got one pretty good Boldy x Alchemist project earlier this year. The shock comes in the fact that Super Tecmo Bo might be his second best project after The Price of Tea in China. And while Boldy is in top form here, this is mostly due to The Alchemist delivering one of his best production jobs.

Mixing cold club beds with soulful sample choices, the record has a lighter texture than Tea, while also expanding on the paranoid sound of Bo Jackson. Just check out the slow funk of “No Laughing Matter” and the eerie whistle on “Hot Water Tank”, which morphs to a film noir theme with the introduction of a nocturnal string section. The slowed down outro of the latter almost suggests shades of vaporwave (especially as it segues into the samples sav of “Bumps and Bruises”). In general, the outros here are particularly fascinating, as most of them warp the source material to the point where it becomes uncanny.

Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit… is a comparison point, but the tone of Super Tecmo Bo never drops into the usually grim atmosphere Boldy’s or Earl’s projects always carried with them. The laid back Late Night LoFi vibe of tracks like “Guilt” honestly suits Boldy’s calm flow and reframes his gangster storylines, moving them from rainy streets into neon lit bars. “Great Adventure” is a great example of this – interrogating a gangster’s relation between his past and present (bringing up a fellow man’s scars to talk about the inevitability of fate), the track’s 70s backdrop is expansive and tranquil, starkly underscoring the protagonist’s reflective attitude. “300 Fences” meanwhile almost sounds like something that could fit a Boards of Canada album, fitting the darker theme of the protagonist struggling during one particular night to fulfil his familial duties, while his life is falling apart – he has to break into his own house and when the neighbours call 911 he soon has to run from the cops.

Mostly helmed by himself, with only ICECOLDBISHOP guesting, Super Tecmo Bo can be interpreted both ways – a quick shot or a personal affair. Both interpretations are valid: the stories here feel genuine and immediate, narrated in the calm tone of somebody who’s found himself in the absurdities that come with adult life on the turf of gang responsibilities. The musical tone is clearly retrospective, allowing for abstractions and mature insight – and tonal experimentation.

All this suggests a newfound urge to progress as artists, to modernize the genre – but also the spectre within gangster rap. Moving on from the hallmarks of the 90s, the album’s flirtations with easy listening (like on “Bumps and Bruises”) pose the questions how realms of dirt and grit correspond with gloss and luxury. What is behind the desires that make us chase our dreams? As Boldy’s narratives often see his protagonists grapple with fatherhood and the dissolution of their household life – impossible to uphold while big time drug dealing – these questions morph into more and more dreamlike scenarios.

It will be exciting to see if the rapper will ever completely abandons narrative cohesion and fully gives himself to the suggestive tones of instinctual oneiric writing. For now, this latest project suggests that Boldy James is keen on moving past his present laureates, looking for a vibe all his own.