Back in July 2015, BJ the Chicago Kid stood on a tiny platform with his guitarist, bassist and percussionist in tow, facing a crowded room of industry folk. Rocking a navy blue short suit and busy kicks, he clutched the mic stand, intro-ing the long-waited followup to his 2012 LP Pineapple Now-Laters. He even sang a bit before announcing the now-familiar album’s title, In My Mind, the features, the producers and giving his DJ the thumbs up to press play to each new track. The only thing was, barely anyone was listening.
The songs, just like they are now after the project dropped on Feb. 19 via Motown Records, were probably beautiful, but an afterthought to a sizable portion of people in the room. Attendees were more preoccupied with the Chicago-style pizza being served, the wine, and parlaying on the patio before the rain came and the label kicked everyone out. Typical industry listening party sans the actual listening. The ones who still give the sunny, nostalgic Pineapple Now-Laters regular play took an L when it came to trying to sift through the noise to hear the man of the hour.
Seven months later, it seems as if everyone’s ears are perked, and rightfully so. After spending over four years on steady hook duty and in the mixtape circuit, the Chicago crooner is commanding his own spotlight on the delightful, love-soaked In My Mind.
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As a closeted Bryan Sledge fan—I’d become hooked after one listen of “Kush & Corinthians (His Pain)” off Kendrick Lamar’s excellent Section.80—the years following Now-Laters’ release caused understandable agitation. A clear followup release date grew foggy as the years stacked up. The worry kicked in when the only time I’d see the Chicago native’s name in digital circulation was when it followed the word “featured.” From 2012 to 2016, the Windy City native brought his trademark old soul velvety voice to a host of songs, including Ab-Soul’s “Lust Demons,” Chance The Rapper’s “Everybody’s Something,” ScHoolboy Q’s “Studio,” The Social Experiment’s “Slip Slide” and “Windows,” Dr. Dre’s “It’s All On Me,” Kehlani’s “Down For You,” Anderson .Paak’s “The Waters” and a host of others. Yes, it proved that the inner workings of the music biz were hip to his vocal gold, but the rest of the world needed to take note of him as a soloist, too.
All the things that made him shine on Pineapple Now-Laters has been polished to a blinding glow on In My Mind. His 2014 The M.A.F.E. Project notwithstanding, sideline time made BJ a stronger artist, and thankfully one who is still well in tune with what made him special in the first place: a sonic and tangible understanding of the complicated language of love. Save for a couple straying moments (the trap-n-B skewed “Man Down” sticks out like a sore thumb, but it appears too early on the project to technically skip), In My Mind is a cohesion of tender love notes from someone who, whether he has it, wants it, needs it or misses it, reveres it wholly.
“Shine,” a lullaby of sorts, is a glittering appreciation for his better half and how they bring out the best in each other, while “Woman’s World” flips the notion of James Brown’s “This Is A Man’s World” to reinforce a theory we already know is true (*smile*). The woman—who creates baby boys and in the same breath turns boys into men in ways that puberty has little to do with—is meant to be cherished, respected and appreciated by men outwardly, loudly. As romantic and storybook-like we’d like love to be, BJ is fully aware of how it stands right now. On “The New Cupid,” he and cultural analyst Kendrick Lamar, an engaged man himself, turn the magnifying glass back on our desensitized generation. “Cupid’s too busy in the club/At the bar, rolling up/And if you see him let him know/Love is gone, I know I’m sure,” BJ croons.
One of the album’s many high points, “Jeremiah/World Needs More Love,” is rich and warm, rising up and washing over you as deeply nestled electric church organs, pitter patter percussion and cymbals peak with crashing drums and spirited squalls akin to Anthony Hamilton. Here, he longs for a love lost while referencing the story of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. It’s a churchy joint through and through. The Eric Ingram-featured track bleeds into repetitive, declarative coos that “since God is love, the whole world needs more love.” “Wait Til The Morning” finds BJ at his apologetic post-screw up, trying to sidestep an impending argument because the relationship is worth more than a petty disagreement. “I’m tryna fix it all/You tryna tell it all/Could we just hold this off and wait till the morning,” he begs affectionately. His pleas are bookended by vocalist Isa’s excellent solo pleading for honesty on the other side of his telephone. None of BJ’s songs necessarily need visual counterparts, because the tones, textures and vivid imagery of his music tell tales and paint pictures all their own.
And let’s not sidestep the obvious: Mr. Sledge is damn good at making bedroom music. Be clear, In My Mind is not an expletive-laced assemblage of ménage à trois, disposable hoes and rough sex. The back of his brain is swirling with loverboy thoughts. Yeah the guy is lusty, he’s human, but he’s keenly aware of the depth that lies beneath the surface of the oft overused L-word. The album is less comparable to the clever, freak-nasty catalogue of Robert Kelly and more so making love over having sex. The steamier songs like “Love Inside” are tender and even paced, with natural climaxes (once you get over its initially creepy verbiage, the song is brilliant). On “The Resume,” after a short monologue from Big K.R.I.T., BJ’s voice envelops and soothes as he sings about putting in that 9-5 work to physically please his Mrs.
On a surface level, BJ is pure delight to the ear of an R&B and soul purist, with a voice that neither wavers nor scratches no matter what kind of song he’s on. It flutters and flits gently at times, like on the beginning of “Church,” where he exercises God-given restraint from scratching a hedonistic itch, or the somber and sobering “Falling On My Face.” What’s a marvel about this record is that, in addition to sticking to his signature buttery tones, like a sponge, he pulls from the best of what R&B has to offer in these diverse, genre-bending times. You can practically hear BJ tip his hat to the coasting, soft-rock croon of Miguel on “Heart Crush” and the silky-smooth jazz scat of D’Angelo on “Turnin’ Me Up.” Sonically, he uses Raphael Saadiq’s bluesy, slow-crawling “Oh Girl” as the blueprint for “The New Cupid.” Additionally, lyrical cues from Kehlani and the sensual tremors a la Trey Songz pop up on “Wait Til The Morning.” These influences lend a sense of familiarity to the listener without stripping BJ of his individual vocal prowess and style.
Failure doesn’t scare BJ; he said so himself on the album’s stream of consciousness intro. And as a result, he’s not scared of its affiliate situations and emotions like trial and error, risk, setbacks, sidelines and exercising patience. Luckily for Mr. Sledge, he has far from failed on this refreshing effort. In My Mind brings a restorative (and very necessary) spirit to an emotion brushed under the rug in the scape of todays millennial music. Hardly any of the project’s 15 tracks are sleepers or skippers. The more you play the album, the more in love you fall with it and with BJ the Chicago Kid as his own artist. With each listen, you pluck out new favorites, fall into new emotions. Quite frankly, it grows sweeter with time, and in this case, all that flavor was worth the wait.