The Dope Boys Are Back In Town

A Detroit and Montreal hip-hop reunion, w/ reviews of Primo Profit & MichaelAngelo + Da Flyy Hooligan & Wun Two.

The Dope Boys Are Back In Town

Right at the start of 2023, Boldy James was at the peak of his powers. Some nine years after the promise of My 1st Chemistry Set with The Alchemist, the Detroit emcee more than fulfilled his coke rap destiny with a run of records that cemented his spot. Beginning with 2020’s The Price Of Tea In China, an acclaimed ALC reunion that prompted no fewer than two more joint efforts together, he dropped multiple projects with a range of beatmakers including Futurewave and Real Bad Man. He’d even caught the ear of culture curator Westside Gunn, joining a new generation of Griselda-branded talents with a 2020 mixtape helmed by future Doja Cat producer Jay Versace. The emcee went from Trappers Alley to centerstage, respected not only by underground heads but also hip-hop elites like Jay-Z for his grown-ass dope boy spiels.

In January of 2023, a car accident in his hometown halted James’ momentum, tragically sidelining him physically as well as professionally. He became uncharacteristically scarce on the release front for much of that year, with previously recorded verses populating a pair of adequate projects—Indiana Jones with RichGains and Prisoner Of Circumstance with ChanHays—that emerged without the same fanfare. Fans naturally feared the worst, while James himself faced a chilling diagnosis of possibly lifelong paralysis. By the summer, though, he took to social media and started announcing live performances, a sense of hope returning among all who cared.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Craven, the Quebecois producer behind James’ 2022 showstopper Fair Exchange No Robbery, was bigger than ever. His years of building a reputation with key placements behind Tha God Fahim and Mach-Hommy, as well as the prescient Craven N trilogy, seemed validated by the warm reception received for that decidedly cold album. Emboldened, he dropped a fresh pair of projects with his longtime rapper collaborator Ransom, an epicurean EP with Raz Fresco and Estee Nack, and a short-but-memorable effort with Montreal up-and-comer Mike Shabb. Yet he undoubtedly knew that the people were waiting for a sequel with James.

Compared with Fair Exchange No Robbery’s sleeper hit status, Penalty Of Leadership (buy it / stream it) is a veritable blockbuster event. The opening and recurring vocal loop of “Formal Invite”—SHOTS RING OUT / PEOPLE SHOUT—jolts the limbic system with serotonin for the soul, James’ gunfire ad libs swiftly ushering in a relentless stream of wordplay that addresses his trauma while vowing to take on all comers. Clearly, these aren’t bars thawed from the icebox, but rather the fresh perspective of a man in recovery from a near-death experience.

In the lead-up to its release, Craven shared that James had recorded his Penalty Of Leadership parts while in a wheelchair. That said, nothing about these 11 songs conveys weakness, with the rapper as razor sharp and unforgiving as ever with his drug dealer rhetoric. He eases into "Speedy Recovery" like one dons a cozy old sweater, signaling to his producer how good he feels, all things considered, before laying into haters and fakes as two-faced opportunists who emulated or fetishized him in vain. One of two pre-release singles, "Brand New Chanel Kicks" details his damage before getting back to the grind, its beat a shimmering backdrop to dope game details delivered calm and casually. The other, "No Pun Intended," goes further as he maps out his territory with a cinematographer's eye, the insular specificity offset only slightly by likening himself to fictional screen villains Tony Soprano and Thanos.

With an emboldened James back in the fold, Craven also appears to level up his production game. The '80s throwback vibes of "Jack Frost" match wits with the emcee's criminal mind, a Miami Vice-meets-Kashif synth boogie that competes with the understated vocal monotone for dominance. As with the aforementioned "Formal Invite," his shrewd sample chops on "Murderous Tendencies" and "Straight As" elevate the source material to the point where trainspotting or, heaven forbid, sample snitching is not merely gauche and uncivil; it's utterly irrelevant.

Penalty of Leadership, by Nicholas Craven & Boldy James
11 track album

Primo Profit & MichaelAngelo, On The Road (buy it / stream it)

A Colombian-American heritage plays an all-but inextricable role in Primo Profit’s raps, evident on his 2017 album Locksmith as well as more recent work. Marked by unflinchingly raw lyrics and immigration enforcement interludes, his latest proves no exception. Grimy, hustle bars informed by narco-politicking dominate, less interested in quips or zingers than attesting to street-level truths via “250” and “Time Will Tell.” More than once, he acknowledges how this lifestyle impacts his mother, taking it on as a grudgingly acceptable risk. The On The Road beats come courtesy of MichaelAngelo, a prodigious Boston native whose growing catalog contains a veritable who’s-who of Massachusetts-based talent including al.divino, Estee Nack, and Shaykh Hanif. Following their prior collab Todo Por La Plata, his approach here employs gun barrel rhythmic hits, as highlights “Otherside” and “Runtz En El Rio” reverberate with chills. 

Da Flyy Hooligan & Wun Two, Nocturnal Hooli Vol. 1 (buy it / stream it)

Following the bravado and grit of this past December's Palermo with Conway The Machine, German producer Wun Two shifts his globalized gaze from Buffalo to London for this concise team-up with Da Flyy Hooligan. Last year's Houli Hansen mixtape, with spots from Conductor Williams and Westside Gunn, saw the UK rapper frequently lean towards a decidedly Griseldan sound. Here, however, he's in a noticeably broader boom bap mode, the EP opener "Nocturnal Hooli" unfolding with warm tones and wry bars. On standout "Mobb Deep Helly, he nods his head over a minimalist Havoc-indebted beat, earnestly spitting his references into the austere abyss.

Three new tracks for you to snack on...

NAHreally & The Expert, "Smarter Than I Am"

Lord Apex, "The Good Fight"

Seafood Sam, "Saylo"

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