Boldy James/Sterling Toles - Manger on McNichols Music Album Reviews

The Detroit rapper teams with the producer Sterling Toles for his most forward-thinking, experimental, and personal album.

This year has been good to Boldy James. February’s The Price of Tea in China was something of a return to the Detroit rapper’s roots—another LP with longtime collaborator the Alchemist, in an effortlessly classicist style—but his victory lap, Manger on McNichols, branches into new territory.

Boldy’s toolkit is simple—a clear-cut flow, and an ear for lived-in phrasing—but he uses it to construct a rich simulation of Detroit, rendering a version of the city that’s tangible even to listeners who have never visited the real place. The landscape Boldy paints is overwhelmingly, almost oppressively dark: “I never been to the joint, but that’s just how it is when you live in Detroit,” he raps on “Detroit River Rock.”

Though Boldy has long had a knack for self-reflection, his writing is even deeper and his focus more intense on Manger on McNichols. It’s not just Detroit that’s depicted in detail—Boldy also writes his way through some of his most traumatic memories. He’s at his most introspective on “Mommy Dearest (a eulogy),” a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue about Boldy’s tortured relationship to his mother inspired by a single line from Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” (“I know my mother wish she got a fucking abortion”). The album’s darkest and most despairing cut is sequenced to effortlessly flow into its most triumphant; “Birth of Bold (the christening)” rises up in glory from Boldy’s painful origins, a joyful declaration of perseverance.

In a podcast interview sampled on “Mommy Dearest,” Boldy credits his newly personal vision to the encouragement of producer Sterling Toles, a longstanding presence in Detroit’s underground scene but not a known quantity among rap heads like the Alchemist. Alc’s beats are seamless and refined, a perfect vessel for Boldy’s casual charisma, but they remain a little predictable, in the way all classic hip-hop beats are the product of a specific formula. Sterling’s productions, on the other hand, feel like full-fledged compositions, knotted and jazzy and complicated, capable of existing without Boldy’s voice but better because of it.

Toles’ work contains the familiar soul samples, segments of sermons, organ swells, and scratches, but his beats go beyond jazz-rap into something closer to true jazz. Flutes, alto sax, and live percussion linger on the edges of “Welcome to 76,” and a mournful cello drones throughout the record.” Sterling’s beats aren’t consistent digital patterns but living things, fluttering and freeform, backed often by live drums. His confident bass playing provides as much a backbone to the record as Boldy’s charismatic voice. Sometimes the drums are late to kick in, letting Boldy’s flow function as the beat (“Detroit River Rock”); sometimes there are no drums at all, just bass, bold flows, and noodling synth lines (“Requiem”).

Sterling’s compositions float in the neutral zone between hip-hop, jazz, and electronic. “Birth of Bold (a christening)” is a Vocoder-inflected G-funk jam until around 45 seconds from the end, when a galloping bassline kicks in and the whole thing transforms into a cosmic Flying Lotus-type beat. On “BB Butcher,” the high-BPM breakbeat approaches the hurried intensity of drum ‘n’ bass. As instrumental tracks, Sterling’s contributions often seek to unsettle, reflecting the anxiety Boldy describes in his lyrics, but it’s his ensemble of bells, xylophones, and glittering keys that provide the album’s few points of uplift.

In his full-length collaborations with single producers, Boldy James lets himself be pushed creatively in a way few rappers ever do, ceding a certain amount of control to the direction of a single creative voice. Sterling Toles isn’t afraid to make complicated beats, and Boldy isn’t afraid of them, and the resulting fusion is unrestrained and inventive in a way few rap records are.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Boldy James/Sterling Toles - Manger on McNichols Music Album Reviews Boldy James/Sterling Toles - Manger on McNichols Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, August 04, 2020 Rating:

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