Soul Star BJ the Chicago Kid Shares His Windy City Wisdom

Shawny Smiters
“Chicago is part of my fiber,” says BJ of his hometown. “I keep it with me at all times.”

The rising R&B singer born Bryan J. Sledge is based in Los Angeles nowadays, but he wears his hometown roots -- or rather, his stage name: BJ the Chicago Kid -- on his sleeve. "Chicago taught me how to survive -- when to shut up, when to keep ­talking, when to leave, when to stay," says the Southside native, 31, who built buzz by collaborating with stars like Dr. Dre and Kanye West. BJ breaks down the Windy City landmarks that inspired his stellar Motown debut, In My Mind, released Feb. 19.

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House Music
EDM's predominant genre is currently ruled by European stars, but BJ says it still goes strong in its birthplace: Chicago clubs. "House is a big part of the rhythm in Chicago. I don't care if you're the most hood gangbanger -- you understand house. Even if they play Future all night, the last 30 minutes they play house, and people are going to be damn near f--ing in there. It gets ratchet really fast."

His Old Gas Station (Really)
“I see black-and-white stills of places where I used to hang out when I’m getting into the mood to create,” says BJ of his songwriting process. “The Marathon gas station on 87th and Racine never leaves my mind. You’re liable to see somebody you know there anytime. People have lost their lives there; people have probably saved their lives there. The hood life has happened full circle at that gas station, from the best to the worst. That place has a lot of feelings in it -- it could lift me up or pull me down.”

His Parents
On his Kendrick Lamar-assisted single “The New Cupid,” BJ spurns nightclub hookups for the kind of genuine, old-school love he experienced growing up. “My mom and my dad was the best example of unconditional love I could see as a kid,” BJ says. “I've known it my whole life. Interactions, kissing, hugging -- it definitely wasn’t the fake love. I understood how my mom felt when my dad walked away and how my dad felt when my mom left.”

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Michael Jordan
"Jordan is the mayor of Chicago," says BJ of the NBA icon. "Kanye, R. Kelly -- Michael supersedes them all. That's why Kanye feels he has to say, 'Yeezy jumped over the Jumpman' [on new song "Facts"]. That's his bar -- a milestone for him to try to cross. If you don't have that hometown pride, we question you, like, 'Where are you from?' "

His Church
BJ honed his vocals at Prayer Band Church (321 E. 69th St.), where his parents were choir directors. You can hear it in "Church," his single with Chance the Rapper and Buddy, which features the hook "She say she wanna drink, do drugs and have sex tonight, but I got church in the morning." "My whole childhood was church," says BJ, who used to sing backup for gospel duo Mary Mary. "But as an adult I've grown to understand my relationship with God versus how I sing. People in church are like, 'You sing the devil's music,' but I believe in balance. I can't just party with you. I got to help you too."

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the March 12 issue of Billboard.