“There’s two things you can’t escape, nigga, that’s death and taxes,” Boldy James recites on his B-side single with Nicholas Craven of the same name ahead of their joint 2022 album, Fair exchange, no theft. Despite Craven’s soulful downtempo beat and a touch of Midwestern hospitality, Boldy James is fatalistic. Death and taxes – expected but never anticipated, these are the only guarantees in life. But even so, Boldy still prefers taxes.
Calling from his living room in Michigan, Boldy seems at ease, smoking behind his glass table. A gold cross hangs on his chest over a red and black flannel to match his red backward Nationals cap. There’s an immediate moisture to Boldy James’ voice. Sleepy and detached, he is unusually relaxed, perhaps hardened to a fault. He discusses everything from the murder of his namesake, Boldy James, to the changing landscape of Detroit with a pragmatism that usually only chisels the voice in old age.
Boldy speaks of a gray-tinged Detroit, built in a dark twilight: “Sky the same color as concrete most of the time,” he recalls. He paints an industrial chessboard: “Detroit looks fun, but if you know what you’re looking at, it looks like danger. Boldy speaks and the paranoia persists. He laughs to keep the conversation light. “I am danger, so I know what I’m looking at and what I’m looking for.” Boldy gets what he wants, and now he’s rising above the whispers at the bottom of 7 Mile, living in a new wave of success.
By rap standards, Boldy James is an old cat. His demeanor immediately lets you know, “I’m one of the coolest n****s,” he tells me. Boldy, 40, grew up in Detroit’s tape culture, buying tapes from local entertainers like the Dayton family, MC Breed, Boss, Street Lord’z and Esham. The memory seems so distant to him that he jokes, “My son doesn’t even know what a tape looks like.”
Boldy James comes from a changing world. “I am the bridge,” he says. “I come from the point where the world went digital, but it was transitioning from the analog world.” Boldy remembers booking studio time decades ago in Detroit, watching artists sell tapes and CDs out of their car trunks. Boldy explains, “The Golden Age was more scripted; now we do a lot of hitting and freestyling. He competes against two different categories of artists, Griselda’s camp focused on true hip-hop tradition, and Michigan’s emerging scene of lean-fueled crooks and husky one-liner delivery guys. But of course, Boldy James knows he can take on anyone, in any style: “I have to let the youngsters know, I’m still fed up and I speak just as well, if not better than when I do me.”
Between 2007 and 2010, Boldy James collaborated with Sterling Toles on a project that would later be known as Eat on McNichols. The album chronicles Boldy’s first three years as a rapper, where Toles gave him the space to engage in a therapeutic exercise in rhythm and rhyme. These are the original sketches of Boldy James the artist, his first time dealing with his emotions in this way, his first therapy sessions. “Music is more personal,” he says. “I don’t really try to showcase a talent for the most part, I try to get rid of all that shit…the shit that’s playing tricks on me, I flaunt it in the music.”
On “Mommy Dearest (A Eulogy)”, Toles excerpts an interview where Boldy explains his homage to Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts”, as well as Boldy’s explanation that: “(Toles) always told me to be more personal, but the more personal that I got, the darker my music got. People had to bring me back to the light and started saying to me, ‘Why don’t you do more and do more of the party with your music?’ so that’s where we are now.
“Mommy Dearest” is a moment of hushed intimacy, a repressed insecurity that rarely escapes the brain, with no thought of exhibitionism. It’s Boldy coming to terms with the fact that her mother wants her to have an abortion. It’s Boldy cutting himself in the pit of his stomach, releasing the acid that’s eating away at him. That’s why Boldy raps, and he assures me the Detroit-born producer saw it in him: “(Sterling Toles) knew I had a story to tell.”
Take “The middle of next month,” for example. The darkly sampled fanfare is instantly disorienting, with chorus, drums, bass, trumpet, scattered screams and more struggling for the song’s wobbly tempo. In the album’s intro, “Medusa” sees Boldy return to the streets to support the baby he had on the way, and within months we find Boldy Boldy rapping between her teeth: “I just lost my two twins in an accident / It would have been my first born, I guess it was not wanted.
We carefully watch the beginnings of Boldy James’ paranoia: “I really don’t trust who I call my friends,” as he continues on “The Middle of Next Month.” The studio had become Boldy James’ personal therapist and psychiatrist, with his microphone recording and a “doctor” prescribing everything from medical-grade blunts to codeine.
Eat on McNichols was only released in 2020. Boldy released it in the mix of three other projects that year, including The Versace Band, really bad boldAnd The price of tea in China. Each was a full collaboration with a single producer: Sterling Toles, Jay Versace, Real Bad Man, and The Alchemist, respectively. After another pair of album-length Alchemist collaborations in 2021, he released four more albums in 2022 – the aforementioned Nicholas Craven record as well as projects with Real Bad Man, Futurewave and Cuns. When RichGains products IndianaJones dropped at the peak of 2023, it was Boldy’s third album in three months. He continues to release project after project because the combination of his unwavering work ethic with his desire to keep his family safe results in an incombustible engine.
On January 9, Boldy was injured in a two-car accident. The fact sits in the back of his brain as he grasps and loosens his right hand throughout the interview, still amazed at his own recovery. He just tells me, “It’s still affecting me right now. It was very traumatic. My life changed physically, I had to be stronger mentally. Not everyone was prepared for this blow, me neither, but I have a lot of people I’m counting on and I have even more people who are counting on me.
Unsurprisingly, Boldy’s nonchalance is unscathed as he reports the injuries he suffered. “My arms were dead, my legs were dead, my neck was broken, my spine was damaged,” he recalls. “I had a crazy operation. Thank God the operation went well because all my nerves started to merge, and my body was like that for a minute, with nothing but my eyes and my mouth moving.
“Everything had changed dramatically. I was in rehab realizing that I had paralyzed myself, which tormented my brain. Just grown man shit. The bills, the family, the shitty relationships, a whole bunch of bullshit that I had to look at on the positive side because when I think about it, I’m blessed.
Boldy explains to me, “I never felt sorry for myself.” If anything, he suggests, “Once I processed the reality of it, it was easier to move on because…my brain had been destroyed so many times and the streets had given me a number, so that nothing surprises me, and that I don’t feel like there’s an obstacle that I can’t cross.
Let it be J Dilla reenacting Donuts while receiving treatment for lupus in the hospital or Kanye recording “Through The Wire” with his jaw closed, a great artist can’t help but create. Every bone in their body craves to be tall. Boldy James is no different: “I couldn’t write when I got home because my arms were strained and my hands weren’t working, so I had to style everything for a minute.” With his prose stylizing his own salvation, Boldy James can’t help but rap.
Boldy tells me excitedly about his next album Dilla-Dilla, on which he raps about “Dilla’s last hideout”: “It’s recorded. It’s done. The papers are signed on it – everything. Now, more than ever, he understands the importance of a project with Dilla. “I feel like (Dilla) was deceived by what really came from the kinds of talents he had and the artists he inspired,” he explains.
Boldy continues: “When (Dilla) died, her legacy means more -”
Just like that, the call ends abruptly. His last words hang in the air. In that car crash, Boldy James’ legacy had suffered almost the same fate as James Dewitt Yancey. It really makes you think, did Boldy James cheat death or was he just trying to evade his taxes?