Detroit might be bankrupt, but it certainly doesn’t have a shortage of buzzy MC’s. Hot on the heels of Danny Brown’s powerful Old and Big Sean’s celebratory Hall Of Fame comes Boldy James, hoping to keep the Motor City on the map with his debut album My 1st Chemistry Set. He certainly makes a case for himself, crafting a stellar record that plays to his strengths as a lyricist while showcasing Alchemist’s moody production.
The album opens with “Bold,” deftly seeking to draw the listener in to Boldy’s world of Detriot street life. “Straight shell cases, ARs, Remingtons,” he raps, painting a violent portrait of day-to-day existence. “Spray fields and gages, tear apart ligaments/Separating them gang starrs from gentlemen.” As the song ends, a series of news clips are heard, recapping the decaying Michigan metropolis’ propensity for drugs and violence. James never shies away from his hard hustling past, instead using the harrowing tales to paint a vivid picture of the world he comes from. “Moonchie” plays as a gangster slang dictionary of a song over a haunting, dissonant beat. Despite the boastful nature of his rhymes, the song’s overall feeling is deeply unsettling and creepy. “Try to stay clean, it’s very important,” warns an echoing woman’s voice in the background. Similar sentiments are found on “Rappies,” which finds him juxtaposing hard knock gang stories with a “Don’t worry, be happy” chorus.
Alchemist’s typically impressive production adds a vital element to the album, as Boldy floats his tales of gangbanging and crack selling over the hypnotic beats. Whether it’s “Moonchie’s” discordant chimes or the dramatic piano interlude at the end of “You Know,” the production serves as the perfect backdrop for him to weave his narrative, giving the album a unique, slow burning feel. Even the guest features feel authentic and purposeful. James chops it up with Freeway and Cleveland’s King Chip on “Surprise Party,” muses with Action Bronson on “Traction,” and talks skipping class with Vince Staples on “Give Me a Reason.” The track likely to get the most buzz, however, is “Reform School,” featuring Odd Future’s own legendary Samoan reform school attendee Earl Sweatshirt, as well as Domo Genesis and Da$h. The four trade rhymes over a murky piano riff, spitting lines about “dead bullies and Red Bull.”
Despite occasional moments of levity, the album is a hazy trip through the triumphs and tragedies of gang life on the streets of one of America’s most troubled cities. Boldy James’ lyrical finesse and knack for storytelling are on full display as he sails over powerful, yet understated production from Alchemist. His no rush delivery allows the weight of his stories to sink in, and ultimately he succeeds at putting Detroit on the map, this time for the right reasons. –Chris Mench