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Boldy James | Prisoner Of Circumstance Review

After a years-long hiatus from music due to creative constraints and legal troubles, Boldy James has been on a creative tear since his resurgence with 2019’s Boldface, which, like 2021 follow-up Bo Jackson, was produced by long-time friend and collaborator The Alchemist. In December 2021, the pair tripled down on the success with Super Tecmo Bo, shifting James’ production further to the experimental. 

In 2022, he rattled off a torrent of projects including Killing Nothing, Fair Exchange No Robbery, Mr. Ten08, and Be That As It May. In an effort to outdo himself, he started 2023 with the incandescent Indiana Jones, featuring jazz-infused production from RichGains.

The production sense of the 2010s club banger era in which James initially rose to fame didn’t suit, but the Griselda collective ethos proved his perfect match. Amidst a torrid combination of jazz percussion, indie guitar riffs, and thundering bass, James sketches out his dark coming of age story. It was another sign that James still hasn’t hit his artistic peak nearly 10 years removed from his studio debut, My 1st Chemistry Set.

But it might not be far off. Gifted the cadence of a conscious rapper with the sensibility of a street one, James found his sweet spot by delivering his intricate verse about drug spoils and the street afterlife over dramatic, soul-fueled soundscapes. In the EP Prisoner of Circumstance, James teams up with Canadian producer ChanHays to push his artistic boundaries even further. The result is a cinematic, high-art autobiographical tribute to the trap lifestyle and what comes when it’s over.

James is on a roll that even a serious car accident earlier this year couldn’t interrupt. And Prisoner of Circumstance certainly reads like it was written by a man whose life just flashed before his eyes. From soul-infused “Shapeshifter,” James asserts himself through both production and lyrical content as the next generation combination of Motown legends J Dilla and Berry Gordie. He admits at one point it’s at least some part bravado: “Overconfident, Imma take the same shot as MJ/ Greatest Story Ever Told/ We get them blocks Dikembe.”

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Built around a series of samples from pop culture moments that speak to James’ experience, Prisoner of Circumstance at times finds him in vivid flashbacks to the times when he was hustling to make a living, fighting cases, and grappling with the life and death consequences of his activities and associations. In other moments, he’s soberly in the present, like when he ironically spits about “trapping through the wire” over a throwback chipmunk beat in a nod to Kanye West (“The Love We Gave”).

Whereas moments of Indiana Jones proved overbearingly dark, ChanHays’ penchant for soul and gospel riffs lifts James’ lyrical content and softens its hard edge. And the samples of DMX, Whitney Houston, and Mike Tyson – each in a revealing moment of their own – serve as a roadmap for listeners to further connect to James’ storytelling.

Prisoner of Circumstance moves Detroit’s Boldy James to new heights as a rapper, artist, and collaborator. Unflinchingly autobiographical and ambitious in its production, the EP is proof that James’ road to stardom – crooked as it proved to be – landed him in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. He’s proved prophetic before, and there’s no reason to think that will change now that he’s got all the right components at his disposal.

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