Less than 30 seconds into his new album, the Detroit rapper Boldy James murmurs the kind of line that can rattle around in your head all day: “My friends came and went, but most of them was murder victims/ Dead before 20, or caught a frame and had to serve a sentence.” There’s an implacably sad coldness to a line like that. The dead are murder victims, and so are the people who went to prison for murder. Both murdered and murderers are caught up in the same system. Both of them have had their lives destroyed over this. Boldy James delivers that line in a matter-of-fact monotone. This is just the way things are. He doesn’t have time to think about it. By the time your brain has even begun to process what he’s just said, James is onto some other stark observation, some other haunted memory.
That line comes from “Carruth,” the opening track on James’ new album The Price Of Tea In China. James deadpans it over a quiet swirl of piano and a mournful, distended soul sample. Other than a slight side-of-the-snare tap, there are no drums. There’s nothing to lighten or sweeten what James is talking about. There are no distractions. The beat comes from the Alchemist, the producer who made all of The Price Of Tea In China with James. The Alchemist has been making rap music since the early ’90s, when the Whooliganz, his duo with Beverly Hills scion Scott Caan, found their way into Cypress Hill’s Soul Assassins circle. Over the decades, Alchemist has made music with some of rap’s coldest, hardest voices, from Prodigy and Jadakiss all the way up to the Griselda guys. Alchemist knows how to handle a voice like Boldy James. He knows how to give the man room.
Boldy James and Alchemist have known each other for a long time. James showed up on the rap-blog scene about a decade ago, first arriving as part of the Cool Kids’ extended circle. (Cool Kid Chuck Inglish is his cousin.) Pretty quickly, James’ deadeyed, ice-blooded style found its own lane. I wrote about him in this space back in 2012. A year later, he released My 1st Chemistry Set, his first full-album collaboration with the Alchemist. But over the last few years, James has mostly fallen off my radar, and I’m not even sure why. There’s just a lot of music out there, I guess. If you don’t make yourself stand out, you can get left behind.
I can’t ignore Boldy James any longer. In recent months, James has reignited his collaboration with the Alchemist, and the results have been heavy and absorbing. At the end of last year, James released the stark, impressive five-song Boldface EP — 15 minutes of Alchemist beats and utterly depressing memories. That was the appetizer. A couple of weeks ago, James and Alchemist released The Price Of Tea In China, one of the best rap albums of 2020 thus far. It’s pure winter music — a hard and ugly meditation on the kind of life that’s not worth romanticizing.
Boldy James is the rare rapper who speaks confidently about selling drugs and who seems to get no excitement from it at all. James is 36 now, and he’s grown into his voice. He always sounded unflappable, but now there’s even more weary authority in his grizzled drawl. Even when he’s talking about how quickly he’ll kill you, he never resorts to bluster. Instead, he sounds like someone who’s stuck in a dangerous and tedious job that he hates: “I been in the streets so long, shit, I’m dehydrated and exhausted/ On them hot blocks off of Market, cold water running out the faucet.” There’s no glamor there. There’s only merciless necessity.
James is an elegant writer, and he deals in specificity: Individual intersections, the science of mixing Robitussin and Benedryl and fentanyl in the right quantities, the importance of checking the seals on pill bottles. He’ll lay out a scene with a painterly eye for detail: “Bloodstains on the concrete/ White sticks with a hint of grey/ Broken glass, middle of the street/ See the bricks chipped from the ricochet.” And he loves language, relishing the way he can describe situations in as few words as possible while building his lines around internal rhymes: “Drunk in a Porsche, trunk full of corpse.”
The Alchemist understands how to bend samples around that kind of imagery. Tea In China is an album with a vibe. Alchemist builds on the tension in what James is saying, layering on ominous drones or looping up film-score strings so insistently that they’re stressful. In between verses, we’ll hear echoed-out police-radio chatter or news reports that add to the depressed paranoia. The guests are past Alchemist collaborators like Vince Staples and Freddie Gibbs and Benny The Butcher — guys who can speak on the same situations with the same commanding ease as James.
The Price Of Tea In China is a tasteful album. It’s part of a genre that’s been developing underground ever since Roc Marciano released Marcberg a decade ago — the music that turns classic East Coast boom-bap into an impressionistic flicker. Just in the past few weeks, there have been a lot of albums that work within the same broadly-defined lane: Tha God Fahim’s Lost Kingz, for instance, or Akai Solo’s Like Hajime and Ride Alone, Fly Together. Mystical insular goon music. I love that stuff. Price Of Tea still stands out. Its atmosphere is thicker, and its writing more poetically precise.
But as artful as The Price Of Tea In China may be, it’s still a hard record about a hard life. James raps about stress and suffering with chilly indifference: “Stuff a bitch with a thousand Xanax in a jimmy hat/ Hothead with a heated temper, quick to Windex a nigga fitted cap.” He raps about his own issues with that same that’s-how-it-is detachment: “My son think that I don’t love him/ He don’t know his daddy thugging.” It’s a fucked-up album about a fucked-up world. It’ll stick with you.
1. Jay Worthy, G Perico, & The Alchemist – “The Routine”
Grimes’ stepbrother is out here making hard, conversational seen-it-all pimp-rap. He’s reminiscing about $50 motels and snorting lines while watching 21 Jump Street reruns to keep himself awake. He’s comparing himself to Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. He’s working with masters. I don’t understand how any of this works, but I appreciate power.
2. King Von – “Took Her To The O”
Mental health is important. You need to be able to tell your therapist about everything you’re going through, especially if post-blowjob murder narratives with O. Henry surprise endings are a part of your life. I’m so happy to see a rap video that takes the process so seriously.
3. Tadoe – “Get It Bussin” (Feat. Lil Yachty)
Tadoe is Chief Keef’s cousin, and this strange and off-kilter rumble of a beat is a Chief Keef production. I wish it had Keef rapping on it, too. But Tadoe sounds tough and perfectly at home on this, and Lil Yachty really goes in. Yachty is on a run right now. He’s pushing himself. It’s working.
4. OG Louie The XIII – “Percs” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Give Sada Baby two minutes and he’ll give you the world.
5. Big Moochie Grape – “Uh Huh Uh Huh Uh Huh”
You’re supposed to buy the soda first, right? You’re not just supposed to dump the cough syrup in it when you’re still in the convenience store? But if I had this hallucinatory beat blaring in my ears, I might not make the best decisions, either.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
he drops every 9 months because he's really serious about being da baby https://t.co/EBW2c1nOmq
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) February 22, 2020