Album Review: Boldy James Pushes the Limits of Hip Hop Within the Confines of Jazz

The Detroit native’s new album release may have flown under the radar compared to the likes of Logic or Taylor Swift, but his collaboration with producer Sterling Toles is just as musically complex and lyrically captivating as any album released all year.

Boldy has already made a splash in 2020, releasing his highly acclaimed second studio album The Price of Tea in China back in February. The collaboration with veteran producer The Alchemist displayed Boldy’s masterful lyricism and ability to flow over formulaic loops. Now, Boldy is venturing into uncharted territories, as Manger on McNichols takes the rapper into the realm of jazz, spontaneity and musicality, while staying true to his Detroit roots that helped shape him.

Sterling’s production provides a fresh and unique canvas for Boldy that allows him to paint a gritty, personal picture of growing up in his hometown of Detroit. While a traditional hip hop beat uses a looped sample or a repeated original melodic line, the production on Manger on McNichols is as free flowing as any jazz composition; no four bars sound like the four bars preceding or following it, and the instrumentation, from saxophones and flutes to strings and far east percussion, is constantly changing throughout the album. The result is a truly masterful album that is equal parts exciting, thought-provoking, depressing and absolutely unique.

The album immediately alerts the listener of its unorthodox approach in terms of production, as a cello drives the production of the album’s opener, “Medusa.” The wobbling bass, melodic cello and soaring vocal backing juxtaposes Boldy’s deliberate flow and lowkey approach, as he asserts in the chorus of the song, “I’m a concreature, like I’m staring at Medusa,” reflecting his feeling of isolation that is caused by his troubled past. Boldy uses the term “concreature” throughout the album, a term that ties the “anything-to-survive” reality he grew up on with his hometown of Detroit. On “Welcome to 76,” a flute, eastern percussion and an alto saxophone are all heard carrying the melody of the production throughout the song, while Boldy continues to detail the gruesome picture of life in Detroit, noting that, “my city ain’t no tourist attraction / this where shit happen.” Boldy also further notes the importance of the “concreature” mentality, as he raps, “concreatures live forever, and cowards die a thousand deaths.”

On “Detroit River Rock,” a trumpet, guitar, bass and horns carry the free flowing production, before the percussion is introduced as a rhythmic vehicle. Boldy flows in and out of the production, as he draws comparisons with gunfire with rock n’ roll, two constants in his life. The rapper also references his former life dealing drugs in order to survive, explaining, “we couldn’t play half court with the no names, we had to play full court with the dope game.” Boldy continues on “B.B. Butcher” over a high-BPM drumming assault, yet contrasts the rapidity of the production with his slow and deliberate flow. Boldy further details the necessity of selling drugs growing up as a means of survival, but also notes “I’m tired of selling this dope” due to the risks associated with that means of income. On “Middle of Next Month,” the production takes more of an electric approach while still containing a melodic trumpet and guitar and maintaining the free flowing style that dominates the album. Boldy reflects on the influences that surrounded him growing up, as he explains “I’m getting real weary of who I call my friends / they ain’t there to help when I need a helping hand / Only when they send me mail when I was locked up.” Boldy thanks his father for helping him find himself, rapping, “You taught me how to laugh in the face of adversity / and how to be a man, I thank you for learnin’ me.”

After a quick, piano-driven interlude detailing a robbery, Boldy exposes his vulnerability on “Mommy Dearest (a eulogy),” a depressing and powerful tribute to his mother. The rapper explains the lack of love he was able to show his mother, and even reveals he questions whether his mother favored his younger brother over him. Through a melodic bass, flute, and eastern vocals, the production paints an ominous picture, and Boldy’s lyrics are both beautiful and extremely saddening. Boldy remembers his mom leaving his family as a child, as he raps, “tellin’ me that you was on your way to come see me / and left me sittin’ on the porch in the rain freezing / had me feelin’ like an orphan the pain stingin’ / and gettin’ stung by the hornet it ain’t the same neither.” The sheer emotion presented in the lyrics is powerful on its own, and supported with a melodic, spontaneous beat adds a layer of uncertainty, and allows the listener to connect with a young Boldy and feel a glimpse of what he might have gone through. In a podcast interview sampled at the end of the track, Boldy notes the inspiration he drew from The Notorious B.I.G. and his song “Suicidal Thoughts,” in which Biggie detailed the rocky relationship he had with his mother.

The album shifts slightly on “Birth of Bold (the christening),” as a g-funk style of production takes the forefront through the use of synthesizers in both the melodic and bass lines, while still keeping the jazzy, free form driven style as the focus. Boldy once again calls back the idea of the “concreature” and how it hardened him throughout his life. One of Boldy’s lines, “If first you don’t succeed / dust yourself off and try again and nurse your self esteem,” reflects the harsh survive-or-die mentality that serves a driving force for how Boldy was able to make it out of Detroit. On “Requiem,” Boldy reflects on his younger sibling having to look up to him in due to the absence of their parental figures, and notes his personal insecurity of having to be a role model while dealing drugs as a criminal. The organ, strings , bass and soft vocal that are prominent of the beat add depths of emotion to the song, as Boldy reminisces of the sad reality of his family history, as lines like “never mix business with blood that don’t belong / and it hurt to kill a n***a you love when it hit close to home,” further reveal the harsh reality of Boldy’s life growing up.

After one more brief interlude, the album closes with “Got Flicked (the rebirth),” the only track containing a feature on the track. Fellow Detroit rapper Louie P. Newton aligns similarly with Boldy in terms of their upbringing, and sheds more light into a community fractured by drugs and crime. The loose production still is driven by spontaneity and creativity, as the album closes with more appalling details of Detroit over a swinging drum kit, bass, alto saxophone and a synthesizer.

The amount of depth packed into Manger on McNichols is rare to find in a hip hop album. Boldy’s lyrics on their own are emotional and layered enough to stand up to the likes of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar detailing their upbringings on 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, respectively. Sterling’s jazz-driven production keeps a constant sense of curiosity and wonder in the mind of the listener, and, like Boldy’s lyrics, could stand on their own as a work of art. It is how Boldy’s lyrics interact with Sterling’s production that truly make the album beautiful and complete; as morbid as it is to listen to Boldy detailing his hardships, it is the complexity of the production that provides a foil to the harsh lyrics. The horrific details of Boldy’s life are balanced out by beautiful melodic lines and seamless improvisation all throughout the album, and the balance between lyrics and production provide a profound listening experience for those willing to step in the world of Boldy James.

Listen to Sterling Toles and Boldy James’ Manger on McNichols below:

3 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s