Boldy James & Ka’s Majestic Psychedelic Rap Journeys
Boldy James and Ka are two very different artists. Boldy is from Detroit, Ka from Brooklyn. Boldy forges long-term creative partnerships with producers and peers, while Ka prefers to do just about everything on his own. Boldy raps in a disconnected snarl, alternately bragging and lamenting about his time in the drug game. Ka raps in an empathetic mutter, looking hard at the institutional racism and poverty that leads so many people to the drug game in the first place. If Google is correct, Ka is nine years and 363 days older than Boldy James.
But both Ka and Boldy James are veteran middle-aged rappers who are currently doing the best work of their respective careers. Both of them make grave, unflinching music about the mental wages of American racism and economic desperation. Both specialize in evocative, atmospheric music that nods toward the deep-concentration history of New York rap without ever pretending like the ’90s never ended. And this past Friday, both Boldy James and Ka released truly exceptional new albums, extending their own remarkable streaks. The two albums are very different. They’ve got different aesthetics, different ideas, and different goals. But thanks to that fluke of timing, Bo Jackson and A Martyr’s Reward are going to stay intertwined with each other in my mind for a long time.
Boldy James and the Alchemist first worked together at length on the 2013 album My First Chemistry Set. At the time, Boldy was a new voice riding a blog-rap wave, while veteran producer Alchemist was going through the early stages of a serious career revival that started once he started making whole projects with ascendant blog-rappers like Boldy. Years later, long after the blog-rap wave crashed, Boldy and Alchemist got back together for the truly stirring full-length collaboration The Price Of Tea In China. This turned out to be the first of four albums that Boldy James released in 2020. On each of them, Boldy teamed up with a different producer. On each one, he shined. It was one of the dizziest creative runs I’ve seen in a long time. So when Boldy and Alchemist announced the impending arrival of another collaborative album, anticipation was high.
On Bo Jackson, Boldy and the Alchemist make good on all that anticipation. Bo Jackson is a beautiful album. If anything, Boldy and Alchemist are even more locked-in than they were on The Price Of Tea In China. Alchemist’s beats drift further and further into the psychedelic ether. Sometimes, we hear little more than a dissolving flute or keyboard and a despondent vocal sample. Over tracks like that, Boldy James leans hard on the grain of his voice, sinking in and getting comfortable. Boldy told heavy truths on The Price Of Tea In China, but he dials deeper into nihilism on Bo Jackson. There’s more bragging about guns and drugs, more hauteur and bloodthirst. But Boldy James isn’t really capable of rap simplicity. Even on the most straightforward bars, he layers on allusive, poetic resonance.
The writing on Bo Jackson is just next-level. Boldy is a couple of years younger than me, and he named the album after a two-sport athlete who seemed like an impossible superhero when we were kids. The implication is clear: Boldy James has played a couple of different games at a high level, too. And while thousands of rappers have rhapsodized about their own criminal histories, vanishingly few have done it with the atmospheric grace and clinical detail that Boldy brings to Bo Jackson. Even the tossed-off lines stick with you: “Playing Tetris with them blocks,” “A glutton for punishment, keep a submachine gun with a hundred clip.” And when that writing truly hits, it can be dizzying.
Consider the storytelling economy: “Burned up the turnpike on my third strike/ State troopers to the left — next exit, merge right/ Got behind us, but they should’ve flicked the car behind us/ If they knew what was in that Honda, probably serve life.” Admire the fractured, grisly imagery: “At the loading dock with a crowbar, busting up a crate/ Dead body parts from the river floating up the lake.” Look at the way Boldy James stacks word sounds up on top of each other: “Drank thicker than somе Mylanta/ Taking heads like a Highlander/ Wеighing up all that pipe cancer/ Kill him, he don’t got the right answers.” Think about how Boldy can sometimes sound just like any other put-upon worker bitching about his job: “Times done got so hard, need a new line on them kilograms/ Been fucked up since El Chapo got locked up, they need to free that man.”
On a very specific level, the release of Bo Jackson is an event. Boldy and Alchemist have long, varied lists of collaborators, and they clearly got to pick and choose the best for Bo Jackson. Some of the best rappers in the world appear on Bo Jackson: Earl Sweatshirt, Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, Benny The Butcher, Curren$y. All of them clearly know that this is a Boldy/Alchemist album, so all of them bring their best material. But after a few listens, those guest appearances aren’t what matters about Bo Jackson. Instead, the thing that sticks is the connection between Alchemist and Boldy — the way Alc can find the right frequency to bring out Boldy’s impeccable craftsmanship and send him into a deep memory zone.
Ka never needed anyone’s help to go into a deep memory zone. The rapper and producer has a long history in the New York underground. These days, though, he works a day job as a Brooklyn fire chief, and he runs his career as a deep-focus experiment in individual voice. With each new album, Ka seems to wander further from whatever his peers are doing, deeper into his own mental zone. He can do that because he puts all that music out himself, controlling every aspect of the presentation. A Martyr’s Reward has a few outside contributors: a beat from old collaborator Preservation, a verse and a beat from Navy Blue, a quick appearance from the singer and former Dungeon Family affiliate Joi. For the most part, though, A Martyr’s Reward presents Ka as he is — a rap stylist and thinker whose instantly recognizable work has no equivalent in rap or, for that matter, in any other genre that I can name.
As I write this, A Martyr’s Reward isn’t on any streaming services. Instead, you can only get it as a $20 download from Ka’s website. The album will presumably show up on those streamers eventually; Ka’s albums always do. But some of us can’t wait. Ka released A Martyr’s Reward without any real previous announcement on Friday afternoon, and I had to hear it right away. When you buy the record, it appears in your inbox as a zip file of wav files with no real metadata. You have to put all that stuff into your iTunes on your own, a bit like one of these meal subscription services sending you some peppers and garlic and telling you to chop it all up yourself. It’s worth the money, and it’s worth the effort. A Martyr’s Reward is something special.
Every Ka album is something special, of course. Ka thinks in album terms, and for years, all of his full-lengths have worked as loose meditations around specific themes: chess, bushido, Greek mythology. On last year’s masterful Descendants Of Cain, Ka got heavily into Biblical imagery. Ka always works magic tricks with these ideas, coming up with astonishing parallels between these ancient, mystical languages and his own personal story. But A Martyr’s Reward is different. On A Martyr’s Reward, Ka’s own personal story becomes the main focus. This time around, that’s the concept. Ka doesn’t have to look elsewhere to find mystical resonance. It’s right there, within him.
“Had a hard life, hard life,” Ka rasps near the album’s beginning. And then: “Sad to say, I know some glad to hear it.” If A Martyr’s Reward has a thesis statement, it’s probably that. On the album, Ka digs deep into many of the ways that his upbringing, in Brownsville during the crack era, left him traumatized. He gets even deeper into the ways that America is set up to give Black people like him hard lives. He talks about cultural theft: “I want back everything they took/ My culture, my music, my look.” He talks about environmental oppression: “The block christened me with toxicity/ From A to Z, school raised me to think only slavery was our only history.” He talks about the grief that comes from looking back on a rough childhood: “Happy I’m here to tell my story, just sad it’s fact/ They stole my youth, I wish I had it back.”
In the hands of another rapper, many of Ka’s lyrical themes wouldn’t be too compelling. When he discusses the ways in which rap music has changed, Ka gets into dangerous territory, the zone where middle-aged rappers risk coming off as bitter fossils. But even in matters like this, Ka’s touch is light, and his writing remains fascinating: “Try to provide fruitfully for those few that root for me/ This music used to be how I got my news as a youth, truthfully/ Back when they did it for the good of the hood, exclusively/ You could make it from the basement; the proof is me.” Anyway, Ka knows he’s getting older: “I’m in my winter, you can tell by the snow on my beard.” He might insist he’d be filthy rich if not for integrity, but he’s not interested in mass appeal. He’s on his own journey, and we’re lucky that he’s let us listen to what often sounds like an internal monologue.
On its own merits, A Martyr’s Reward is a truly beautiful rap record. Ka’s pen remains sharp, and on a sheer wordplay level, his writing can stun. I could quote him all day. “Cops got us under microscopes to make sure we cells/ Know my first vitamin was iron, but I just wanted to be 12.” “They yap about cash, I casually talk casualty/ Exorcise demons, they seem to leave you with atrophy.” “Pass flying colors, few brothers got splashed, lie in gutters/ Hurt my heart, they took our diamonds, call us spades, tried to club us.”
As a producer, too, Ka’s work mesmerizes. The music on A Martyr’s Reward is all texture: reverb-drenches synth tones, spectral echoes of blues guitar, lonely wandering melodies so distorted that I can’t always tell if they’re horns or violins or what. The sounds work on a subatomic level, soaring off into mythic zone-out fugue states. The album barely has any drum sounds, and it’s sonically closer to film scores or Stars Of The Lid-style ambient than to East Coast boom-bap. It’ll take you to a different place.
On their respective new albums, Boldy James and Ka go for different things, but they both find their way into wizened, contemplative float-spaces. Those spaces aren’t the same, but they do complement one another. When I finish listening to Boldy, all I want to hear is Ka, and vice versa. Together, these two records make up a miraculous bounty. In their infinite wisdom, the fates have granted us two harsh, soothing, hypnotic, overwhelming new rap albums. Don’t take those gifts for granted.
1. Money Man – “Live Sum Mo”
Blurry melodic trap should’ve played itself out a decade ago, but every once in a while, someone can still find a frequency that hits on some deep, instinctive level. On this song, that’s what Money Man does.
2. Foolio – “JWET”
Use your aggressive feelings, young Skywalker. Let the hate flow through you.
3. Clavish – “One Of A Kind”
These days, for the most part, American rappers and producers don’t know what to do with strings and pianos other than going for boring prestige. In the UK, though, it’s a different story. In the UK, strings and pianos can still raise goosebumps.
4. Flee Lord & Roc Marciano – “Trim The Fat” (Feat. Stove God Cook$)
Last year, Roc Marciano produced a whole album for Stove God Cook$, and those bleary beats helped turn Stove God into an underground star. Now, Roc Marci is doing a whole album for New York’s tireless Flee Lord, a guy who came out with 12 albums in 2020. He sounds ready.
5. Young Slo-Be & Drakeo The Ruler – “Unforgivable”
Everything about this is cool, but Drakeo’s tired-voice cartoon-villain mumble is, I think, what makes it special.