Moving to Los Angeles at 19, BJ the Chicago Kid cut his professional teeth singing background for Mary Mary, Usher, Stevie Wonder and Jill Scott and others as well as writing for Lalah Hathaway, Shirley Caesar and Joe. Now an indie album, several mixtapes and a hit feature later (ScHoolboy Q’s “Studio,” No. 5 on Hot Rap Songs), the Windy City native (born Bryan J. Sledge) is celebrating the release of his long-gestating Motown debut In My Mind (Feb. 19).
The 15-track album’s arresting and gritty fusion of traditional and modern soul — paired with BJ’s supple tenor/falsetto — includes the No. 25 Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay hit “Church.” Featuring Chance the Rapper and Buddy, the track brings a 21st-century update to the tug of war between faith vs. carnal temptation that Marvin Gaye infamously addressed. Other standouts include the emotional ballad “Shine,” the metaphor-rich “Resume” featuring Big K.R.I.T., the James Brown-inspired “Woman’s World” and “The New Cupid” featuring Kendrick Lamar and sampling Raphael Saadiq’s “Oh Girl.” The latter debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard + Twitter Emerging Artists chart, dated Feb. 27.
Munching on takeout from Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles inside Hollywood’s Capitol Records Tower, BJ the Chicago Kid revealed insights on a few more things that are on his mind.
The album’s revivalist feel: I grew up in church and on the block; the best of both worlds. I realize how much my life lines up with artists like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. My sound comes from church, but the stories come from actual personal experience, being out there in the streets living life. My two voices — church and street — have always been a plus for me. It’s a natural feeling I embrace so much.
Inspiration behind “The New Cupid”: The song includes the lyrics, “Cupid’s too busy in the club; at the bar rolling up. He’s doing the same thing we’re doing.” So you’re in the club three to four hours, out of how many days in the week? You get home late from the club and your girl is trippin’. What’s your balance? You need to get back right. And I feel bringing that balance — talking more about life in general — is my responsibility musically. I’m also an R&B singer who really loves love in what’s more of a ratchet world now. My music is all about challenging people in dope ways.
The new R&B: The world hasn’t noticed, but R&B has shifted. It’s changing course. This generation grew up listening to Jay Z, Usher, Kanye West and Chris Brown. They’ve had time to listen, absorb it and tap into a new wave of R&B. Everybody calls Fetty Wap a rapper, but he’s a singer. Drake raps but also sings a lot. Ty Dolla $ign, Bryson Tiller. Singing is becoming more popular.
Collaborating with Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak, Kehlani and others: It’s very important that we help each other grow; water each other. The last time I saw Kendrick, we laughed so hard that tears were falling out of my eyes. We reminded each other that we’re regular people and we knew each other long before whatever changed. For him to send me my verse back in a timely matter is very dope … some people take all that for granted.
Legend/mentor Raphael Saadiq: He’s like a big brother to me. I saw him perform several years ago at House of Blues. My eyes got watery on one particular song. I can’t remember the song title, but I do remember the powerful connection I felt. According to America, guys from the ‘hood don’t know how to express ourselves like that or we’re not open enough to feel like this. Since then, I’ve gone to Raphael’s studio and asked 1,000 questions. [Laughs] We’ve talked about the power of music and his whole approach to being an entertainer versus a singer just standing there. He’s always pulling my coattails, helping me. I cherish his knowledge, longevity and experiences.
Surviving the streets of Chicago: It sounds cliché, but it was my support system of family and friends. And my tunnel vision [career-wise]. It was “I’ll leave, go get it, you’ll see and hear it.” It makes you not concentrate on the negative as much. It helps you understand there are positives and positives you can do, like the Chicago Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization I started when I came to Motown.
His long journey to this pivotal point: This music thing can drive a lot of people crazy. This is like a third life for me. I started singing backgrounds for Mary Mary and Usher during Confessions. Then I jumped to working with Anthony Hamilton, Jill Scott; jumped again to Kanye West, The Killers. I kept saying, “OK, this is the last time, then I get to do my music.” God is like, “No, you’re going to tap every nail on this desk. And all these nails are going to lead you to where you’re going to go.” We never understand that in the middle. So yeah, I truly got discouraged. But I was in too deep. I decided that I came here and I’m going to win here.