Detroit street rapper Boldy James’s stories are set against a depressed, industrial backdrop similar to fellow Midwestern MC Freddie Gibbs. James’s adept, monotone delivery may also invite a comparison between the two, but his coke-crack-kush slinging tales are smaller-scale and less cocksure than Gibbs’s. Boldy may be “pushing whips that ain’t even out yet” but what does it matter when “he can’t trust a soul to help [him] count” the money he bought it with? (“400 Thousand”). If Gibbs is always aiming to take the listener from “the cradle to the grave,” James is content with the trip from “the kitchen to the curb,” and has lot to say about the driveway.
Three releases into his career, James’s style is as carefully ironed out as the rituals of cooking, hustling and meting out punishment that he raps about. On My 1st Chemistry Set, as in his previous work, he continues to run his archetypal drug enterprise like clockwork: stacking his cash, feeding his family and telling stories about the road bumps in between. But it’s the specifics of the mini-narratives, the slang (playfully defined on “Moochie”) and his code of ethics — shown, but not told — that catch our attention. James doesn’t have to beg for it, or sacrifice an inch of subtlety; he just commands it, and gets better at doing so with each new record.
His sense of craft is evident from the outset of the album. The opening track is centered around an intricate, “This Little Piggy”-style description of the physicality of shooting: “My middle finger it grip that Maggie tight/ …And my pinkie fingers anchor my thumbs/ Strike the thumb on my other hand, click the hammer/ Yep, my left index is ambidext-ree-ous/ left fuck-you finger the reason I squoze…” This attention to detail is all over the record. Boldy’s a known Wire fan (note the skits on 2011′s Trapper’s Alley), but see “You Know,” “Cobo Hall” and “Give Me a Reason” for pithy traphouse anecdotes even David Simon couldn’t dream of writing.
This type of content, as well as Alchemist’s inventively blunted, “Return of the Mac”-style beats, will increase the comparisons to Prodigy that James is probably used to getting by now. But though his music is situated in that tradition of gangsta rap, he’s distinguished from this comparison and others by a love of the sound of words — as much as their import — which manifests itself in a singular way. He crafts deceptively complex internal rhyme schemes, and positions his vowel sounds close enough to one another to continue the patterns until he’s exhausted their potential. He uses words carefully and as sparingly as possible, which often makes the breathing room left after a murmured threat as important as the line itself.