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R&B's BJ The Chicago Kid Is Way More Than A 'Hook Guy'

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 26, 2016 4:51PM

BJ the Chicago Kid (photo by Shawny Smiters)

By Zach Blumenfeld

At one in the afternoon last Thursday, BJ the Chicago Kid wasn't answering his texts. I sat in a leather armchair in Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel lobby across from BJ's manager, Steven, who was shaking his head at his phone.

“He probably fell asleep,” Steven told me. “Give me a sec, I’ll go wake him.”

It had been an exhausting week for the 31-year-old R&B singer-songwriter. Previously best known for his vocals on tracks by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, BJ was prepping for the release of his major-label debut, In My Mind. He had returned from LA to his hometown for nonstop promotion, including a spot on Windy City Live that morning.

Steven returned shortly with BJ in tow. The singer, wearing a tan hoodie and a baseball cap, looked groggy—but he’s used to sleep-deprivation.

“What’s crazy is your debut album you work on your whole life, but I knocked mine out in 30 days,” BJ told me. “I slept at the studio 27 of the 30 days. I’m a monster when it comes to this.”

So waking up from a nap was no problem—especially once we started talking about his artistic ambitions.

BJ has had musical dreams for as long as he can remember. Born Bryan James Sledge, he grew up the youngest of three sons of two choir directors in Washington Heights, beginning on the drums before gravitating towards singing. Even today, his drumming background influences his songwriting “timing-wise, how I can pretty much own timing, being ahead, being behind.”

Later that evening, at Reggie’s Rock Club for the In My Mind album release party, he would demonstrate that his percussion chops are still strong, bringing a marching band-style drumline on stage and pounding out syncopated rhythms on a floor tom.

Though he’s currently based in L.A., Chicago is still in BJ’s heart today—hence his Chicago release party, and his stage name.

“People will say my name, they’re saying something positive about Chicago, and that’s good enough for me,” he told me. “Just saying BJ the Chicago Kid, if you say something negative after that, you’re contradicting yourself naturally. I’m from the South Side, like the real hardcore South Side. You’re talking to a survivor, man.”

BJ’s first major opportunity was in Los Angeles, where his friend Kevin Randolph connected him with a gig singing background vocals for gospel duo Mary Mary. Without a second thought, BJ headed for the West Coast, the first of his family to leave the city.

“That was me understanding what the fuck is up,” he told me. “You gotta get out of here. Show me here, I’ll show you somebody who left home.”

I asked him if he really thinks musicians have to leave Chicago to advance their careers, citing Chance the Rapper (with whom BJ collaborated on In My Mind’s standout single, “Church”) as an example of a success story who stayed here.

While BJ admires what Chance has done from and for the city, though, he contended that Chance has only been able to do it because of the attention others have brought to Chicago over the past decade.

“Whoever drew eyes here before him helped him,” he told me. “And he’s gonna help somebody after him, that’s how it goes.”

As a 19-year-old on his own in L.A., BJ grew up quickly, finding steady work as a backing vocalist and songwriter, performing in the chorus on Stevie Wonder’s 2005 album A Time To Love and Kanye West’s 2006 single "Impossible" (credited as BJ). He did it all while falling in with the Top Dawg Entertainment crew—Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q among them.

“Pretty much we all been friends forever, man,” he said.

Over the next ten years, BJ complemented his vocal work and songwriting with four of his own mixtapes and an indie album, Pineapple Now-Laters, that he released in 2012. When Motown caught wind of it, they signed him.

While he wrote songs for In My Mind—he penned over 300, which he later whittled down to the fifteen tracks on the album—BJ drew attention as a featured artist on ScHoolboy’s 2014 single “Studio,” which BJ also co-wrote. The song was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration,”

It lost to Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster,” but it placed BJ in a prominent role that contemporary soulful R&B singers often find themselves in: that of singing the hook on hip-hop songs. Think Dwele on Kanye’s “Flashing Lights,” or Ne-Yo on Pitbull’s “Time Of Our Lives” (I can’t believe I just cited Pitbull). Some music critics call these singers “hook guys,” arguing that such artists can’t really stand on their own legs because the tide of popular R&B is shifting away from them, toward the darker material of singers like The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller.

I mentioned this to BJ.

“I don’t know what a hook guy is,” he declared. “What is this box we’re using? An artist is an artist first. Then you’re a rapper, a singer, whatever. But you’re an artist first. Artists can do whatever they wanna do.”

BJ definitely does. He told me about a time in the hazy past when he was called into the studio to finish a song that needed to be ready by the next day—and the original songwriter had had to go pick up his kid from school.

“So I had to pretty much become this guy, finish this song as if I was him, like what would he think,” BJ reminisced. “And doing that a billion times, I can do anything with [any] beat. Anything.”

Experiences like that have made BJ a self-described “chameleon,” a man who adapts to whatever the situation in the writers’ room or studio calls for, who can adopt any style and fill any need on a song, whether it’s being written for him or someone else. It’s “a golden lining, a golden moment that’s not passé,” BJ said of the ingredient he brings to his songs.

That golden moment, in BJ’s eyes, is a sign of greatness, something he argues he’s achieved at this point. BJ defines greatness as a combination of two elements: relentless drive and eagerness to immerse yourself in your field.

“You have to embody it, you have to breathe it, eat it, shit it, piss it, sleep it, and do it again tomorrow,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve done. For the past twelve years, I helped so many other people with music.... and I wasn’t just there for a check, I was there to absorb information, knowing that this time was gonna come. Not knowing when, but the gangsta part is sticking in there and having the patience.”

BJ’s patience has paid off. In My Mind has been warmly received by critics since its release last Friday. The album’s spirit is rooted in the soul music BJ grew up listening to, but it runs the gamut of modern R&B styles.

“There’s not one sound on the album, there’s not three sounds,” he told me. “It’s a collage of incredible music."

There'’s the trap-influenced “Man Down;” the soaring electro-chorus ballad “The Resume;” there’s the lounge feel of “The New Cupid,” which features Kendrick Lamar, there’s the straight neo-soul of “Church,” the aforementioned lead single featuring Chance.

Lyrically, In My Mind presents a mix of steamy love songs and introspective meditations. For BJ, though, it’s more about the music than the words.

“It’s not one of those personal albums,” he told me. “This album is one that’s about what I want people to understand that I can do musically, what my capabilities are.”

The crowd was palpably excited for the album at Reggie’s Rock Club later that evening; In My Mind would be released when the clock struck midnight. BJ took the stage just after eleven, radiating excitement throughout his half-hour set.

“My album drops at midnight!” he shouted over and over, very much awake. In the light of the club, as BJ sang about religion and sex and life, it almost looked like he was glowing gold around the edges.