“Cities like L.A. and New York, even down south in cities like New Orleans, the wild cities where a lot of murder, drug trafficking go on, that's basically what Detroit has been all my life," says Boldy James. "It's been a place where if you don't adapt to your surroundings the hood will take you under." The 30-year-old Motor City rapper, who build his buzz last month with the release of his Alchemist-produced debut album My 1st Chemistry Set, doesn’t hide from his hard knock past. “Growing up around here man, it means the world to me because everything I have left I’m holding onto with all I got. I don’t want to lose nothing else.”

Raised by a single father on Detroit’s West Side, James Jones III quickly learned that a life on the streets wasn’t easy. From an early age, he saw friends fall victim to gang violence, and he even had his own brushes with the law. “I had a real father who raised me… and he let me make my own decisions, but I also had to stand on those decisions when they came and bit me in my ass too,” he reminisced.

He decided to pick up the mic in the 8th grade, trading bars with his classmates in the schoolyard. The traumatic life experiences he faced inspired him to pursue a career in rap mostly in an effort to avoid the same fate as those around him. He recalls getting advice from his cousin The Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish that resonated with him: “You not gonna keep being luck out here doing the shit that you doing and getting away with it. You need to take your music more seriously, because I think that this shit will take you out of this life that you’re living.”

It took years of hard work, but eventually the success came. He first broke out with his Consignment: Favor for a Favor, the Redi-Rock Mixtape in 2012. The project caught the ear of the blogosphere, and soon he found himself signing a deal with Decon Records to work on his debut with acclaimed producer Alchemist. Despite landing a number of high-profile guest features from artists like Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson, Boldy says he didn’t have to look very far. “I’m not the type of guy to sit there and chase people down because they got fame. I’m going to rock with my guys with or without the money, because our relationship is not about the money.”

In some ways, his newfound success is bittersweet. “The people I used to dream with and all of that, they not around,” he reflects. “I’m making all this money now, but it’s not the same because I don’t have those people to enjoy it with.” He honors the many lost friends through his rap name, adopted from a slain drug dealer from his old Stahelin Avenue neighborhood. “Boldy James, he represents not just me, not just him, but people like us from the city and everybody who knows the story and know where my man come from.” To Boldy, keeping his name alive is a way to show his spirit lives on.

Most of all, the Michigan MC tries to remain humble despite his burgeoning career. “I don’t brag and boast and think I deserve credit for shit that I’m supposed to be doing,” he explains. “Like you’re supposed to get money, you’re supposed to take care of your family and your children. I [don’t] act like I was born rich and I haven’t been through trials and tribulations.” For Boldy James, these struggles have served both to inspire his lyrics and to motivate him to escape the fate that has befallen so many of his peers. Ultimately, that’s all he’s ever worked for. “I’m from the real Detroit shit,” he says. “That’s what they would be surprised about, that Boldy James is everything and more they thought I would be. I’m really that nigga … I’m everything I tell you I am.”—Chris Mench