“Soul music comes from church. I come from church. Therefore …” Bryan James Sledge trails off mid-sentence and shifts his attention back to the plate in front of him. After a light press day in the nation's capital, he and his people are tucked in the front dining area of Nando's, its unnecessary air conditioning prompting collective goose bumps despite D.C.’s cool pseudo-spring outside temps. Aside from the nearby table of nannies spoon-feeding cooing children and a sprinkling of single patrons across the room, his is the only ones party here. Across the table's clutter of cutlery and condiments, Sledge—sporting a soft coral sweater, modest gold chain and tight, freeform coils sprouting from his head—is smashing an order of wings drizzled in mild Peri-Peri sauce, the cleaned bones of fallen fowl piled neatly on the side of his plate. His glass of pop could use a refill, and neither his corn on the cob nor his mashed potatoes have been touched. He’s too busy trying to figure out why people won’t just call a spade a spade.
“I want somebody to explain to me what a neo-soul artist is,” he muses, brows perking. Indeed, Sledge—commonly known as BJ the Chicago Kid, his professional moniker—is nobody's neo-soul artist. An hour or so before this rare moment of sit-down dining and spirited conversation, the singer-songwriter's visit to SiriusXM's “The Heat” proved why "soul" is the only part of the misused ‘90s industry phrase he’ll accept.
It wasn't an on-camera session, but the Windy City native made an otherwise quick and intimate promo appearance for In My Mind, his debut Motown Records release, feel like a private stage performance. (SiriusXM staffers even put in requests for more songs outside the preselected three; they were respectfully declined in the interest of time.) In the spacious recording studio, BJ pushed the stool aside to give himself ample room to feel the songs while delivering them—pacing back and forth in front of the mic, waving his arms, squeezing his eyes shut and putting his hands up on his cheek for emphasis, impassioned church sway in full effect. With the start of each song, the emotions feel as fresh as when he’d first recorded them. Veering from scripted chords yielded a confident exploration and execution of new melodies. His strong midranges knew exactly when and where to soften, and his gentle falsettos never scratched nor grated. Even warm-up, idle notes were pristine and affecting, flitting nimbly through the surrounding space like a butterfly and pulling dragon-like power straight from the gut. "He is so good," a giddy studio employee behind me whispered while listening to the album's D'Angelo-esque closer, “Turnin’ Me Up.” Then, somewhere within the ending riffs of his single "Church," a mishap occurred: The background music playing in BJ’s ear skipped, leaving him to improv, but the hiccup was only revealed by guilty grins and subtle laughter exchanged between guitarist/producer Jairus "J. Mo" Mozee, manager Steve McDaniel and the man at the mic. As long as the delivery of a song stirs up emotions on impact, technical discrepancies are secondary. “That’s what soul music does," he shrugged off matter-of-factly.
“You cannot have black music without something soulful in it, whether it’s lyrically, how it’s performed or how it’s expressed," BJ says later at Nando’s, offended by the very idea of watered-down soul. "That’s what we do. People run from that. I run to it. I don’t know what neo-soul is. You can’t call something that’s old ‘retro’ and still old. No, n***a, it’s old. Don’t strip it from its value.”
On an average day, BJ, 31, is the jovial sort, never short of a joke or a twangy impression swiped from an elder with deep Southern roots. Aside from Chi-Town, his family is lightly seeded throughout Atlanta, Arkansas, Mississippi, Memphis and Kansas City. He’s warm in his welcomes, spontaneous and playful in his actions and generous with his laughter and bursts of energy. But when he’s talking about the genre he guards so fiercely, he’s dead serious. By this time tomorrow, Sledge's mild frustrations will have subsided, and he'll be converting unfamiliar Broccoli City Festival attendees into bonafide BJ the Chicago Kid fans. The work he's put in to give soul music its due diligence and elevating it amongst millennial audiences is no laughing matter.
"He takes the craft very seriously, which I love and appreciate even more because he gets that the work ethic is as important, if not more important, than the actual talent," Ethiopia Habtemariam, president of Motown Records and head of Universal Publishing Music Group's urban music division, says over the phone. She and BJ became fast friends after meeting through an L.A. rapper when she was just a publisher. Five years of friendship and a major promotion later, she helped bring BJ into the Motown fold in 2012. "You can get in the game and realize there are people who are not as talented as you that may have more success, and it’s really because of their work ethic."
Consider In My Mind the fresh fruit of years of life, labor and plenty of faith. It took BJ four years to buckle down and deliver the long-awaited follow-up to Pineapple Now-Laters, the excellent 2012 debut studio LP that catapulted his buzz and got him major looks beyond the then-burgeoning L.A. troupe TDE. “It took me 30 days to record it. But life lessons, the songs I wrote about, I had to live,” he says. “Trust me, living is always a huge part of my music.”
Habtemariam actually had to shake her pal out of his “living” stage a bit so that patient fans could be satiated sometime this lifetime. “‘Yo, you have to finish this f**king album!’” she remembers telling him during the mini scold session. “I went crazy on him and my A&R guy one day. It was the first time BJ ever saw me go ham. It’s been too long! You got to put your music out.”
What emerged after the wait did not disappoint. Although the album was met with moderate metrics—at press time, In My Mind had charted at No. 4 on Billboard’s R&B Albums, No. 7 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and No. 43 on the Billboard 200—critical acclaim abounds. Aside from our own, Pitchfork, Metacritic and the New York Times gave the LP favorable reviews, and for good reason: It’s his most rounded, cohesive and aurally lush work to date. Unlike he and J.Mo’s Pineapple Now-Laters—a potpourri of scattered but dope soundscapes that fit well on one project—In My Mind flows from one song to another like a stream of consciousness, both thematically and sonically. Save for a track or two, nothing feels disjointed. Nothing interrupts the emotive journey from “Intro (Inside My Mind)” to “Heart Crush” to “Turnin’ Me Up.”
Released just five days after Valentine's Day, IMM is awash with agave-sweet vocals and tender tales of love learned, lost and appreciated. BJ’s lyrics, both coded and clever, intimate and explicit, left no stones unturned when it came to expressing love for his women, his city, his God and, thankfully, himself. Even more importantly, the self-assigned “New Cupid” tasked himself with being the one to stoke love flames in the hearts of others. “The responsibility lies on me since Cupid ain't around/And when y'all really feeling like you're falling in love when my music puts you right on down,” he croons before Kendrick Lamar wax poetics about approaching love all the wrong ways.
Like many of the vocally gifted Chicagoans who came before him and will surely follow, BJ—the son of two choir directors and youngest of three singing boys—got his start in the sanctuary. Prayer Band General Assembly Church on the South Side of Chicago, to be exact. Yes, church gave him a sound moral compass, a core-stirring voice and spirituality that runs deep, but just because he’s an old soul through and through doesn’t mean his material comes off as fuddy duddy, preachy or overly purist. Based on his discography, it’s evident that BJ likes sex. Even though he just got comfortable doing it around his mama, he curses from time to time. He, too, is a fan of ratchet party cuts that would send a prude into a blushing spell (“When I’m in the club,” he says, “I don’t wanna hear Kirk Franklin.”). He’s just a young guy with a set of pipes that transcends decades.
“He’s bringing younger cats full circle by reintroducing [them] to music that their parents enjoyed. He has fresh ideas with timeless lyrics,” says Anthony Hamilton of BJ’s mature swagger. Back in 2011, BJ joined the raspy-voiced soul singer’s tour as a background vocalist and worked with him in the studio on Back to Love, his 2011 LP.
We don’t know til it’s over. That’s why you gotta bust your a** everyday. You’ll either be read about or you’ll be doing the reading. —BJ the Chicago Kid
Based on the diversity of his show audiences, BJ’s music strikes a chord with listeners old enough to trace the obvious influences of his idol, Marvin Gaye, arguably the most legendary voice among Motown’s signature canon, (who passed away seven months before BJ was born in 1984) and young enough to pick up on the lingo of today’s most SnapChat savvy. "We sent Berry Gordy his album, and he loved it, which was complete validation for us. You know, that’s the one," Habtemariam says of the legendary Motown founder. He isn’t the only big name loving BJ’s music.
While sitting in on a studio session with Sony A&R Kawan "KP" Prather and Andre 3000 for Dre’s new record, she vividly remembers the room's reaction when she played them "The New Cupid" before IMM dropped. "They were like, ‘Yo! This is it! This is it right here!’” she says. “I got Dre telling me he loves BJ the Chicago Kid."
A common intro to BJ’s repertoire is his extensive hookwork for locally respected wordsmiths—the “featured artist” list of credits on AllMusic feels frustratingly longer than that of his own material—namely on joints from his longtime friends over at TDE. “I’ve known [Kendrick Lamar] for years,” he’d told us earlier this year. “Him, Top Dawg, Punch, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q. Our relationship was there before the success.” His contributions to Black Hippy material stretches back as far as 2009 with “Faith” from The Kendrick Lamar EP. The crew later nabbed him for K.Dot’s “Kush & Corinthians (His Pain)” and Jay Rock’s “Finest Hour” in 2011, Soulo’s “Lust Demons” in 2012 and Q’s “Studio” in 2014, the assist that put BJ on the mainstream map. “None of these songs changed my life like this one. I went from BJ the Chicago Kid to Grammy-nominated BJ the Chicago Kid,” he says over cheers as the tinkering intro of Oxymoron’s highest charting single queues up at Broccoli City. From there, the love only stems outward. Beyond the left coast’s reigning rap posse, the sought-after crooner has the support of today’s rap staples and yesterday’s hip-hop elite, a who’s-who list that includes Freddie Gibbs, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Busta Rhymes, Big K.R.I.T. and Dr. Dre, the latter of whom brought BJ onboard for his comeback soundtrack album, Compton.
Collaborating with such a hefty mix of musical acts has helped him fuse styles and win over diverse fan bases. “Drake is very cool at having thugs, hippies, beautiful girls, the ‘hood guys—everybody is in one room enjoying the same music,” BJ says in admiration. That’s exactly what he’s aiming for. Vocally and stylistically, he pulls from the Jagged Edge era of hip-hop-meets-heartbreak music, where men with swelled and sagging jeans, sweatbands, cornrows and tilted caps flaunted voices that turned ladies’ knees into putty. And when the spirit moves him, like for the undercurrent chant of “The New Cupid” (“Love ain’t dead stupid, I’m the new Cupid/Throw your hands in the sky, ‘cause love’s still alive”), he’ll swap his singer’s fedora for a rapper’s fitted. “Everybody wanna sing, everybody wanna do our job,” he says of spitters occupying singers’ lanes and vice versa. It’s a fair exchange. “Because they love it so much they wanna do it. And we wanna be them. That’s why you hear, ‘They call me U-S-H-E-R.’ If we accept it instead of slamming each other, we’ll be iight.”
There’s a nostalgic, ‘round-the-way vibe to his music that reels in listeners with typically shorter attention spans. “BJ has such a soulful voice that’s reminiscent of the past, and people are surprised that kids will like that. But I’m not because it’s all about feeling,” Habtemariam says. “I’m glad that hip-hop embraced him first because it allowed him to not get put in a box.”
“There’s something about real music, dawg. It comes to you, you don’t have to go to it.” A cornrow-rocking BJ said this seven years ago in a lo-fi black and white video on his since-abandoned Vimeo page. He’d just finished up an abridged acoustic rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a popular cover that’s often a true soul singer’s go-to for showing off their vocal prowess. “Just to be a part of something that can travel beyond and reach the lives of people and help them through a daily problem or struggle or even just giving encouraging words, period. I feel like it’s very powerful. I thank God for my gift.”
This particular gift, he’d said, is his 24/7, his 365, his everything, and there’s an unexplainable power that comes with it. Take the making of "Jeremiah/World Needs More Love" from IMM, a manifestation of the firm belief that as an artist, he’s a vessel. As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist—drums are his first love—BJ says that he's very much hands-on in the creation of his music, but amazing things happen when he steps out of his own way and allows the music to create itself.
"What comes first is what comes first," he explains, retelling the story with J.Mo across tables. "Jeremiah" started off as a freestyle during sound check, with first playing the melody on his guitar while BJ pulled the lyrics from the air word-for-word and singing into his phone, his lyrics born of longing, love and the pain and marvel they engender. They knew what they created was special, making a beeline for the studio to record it right away. "I listened to what I said, and I said, 'I don’t have to change a f**king word.' That’s what lets me know you’re being [used]. You’re not controlling; you’re just doing."
When he's at his most passionate, BJ has the diction and demeanor of a pastor mid-sermon, right when the message hits both him and the congregation. There's a certain reverence that goes into making his music, a focus that comes with knowing why you make the music you do. It goes beyond just sounding good, making money or being famous. Purpose is the nucleus of it all. "You gotta remember back then, Marvin Gaye loved singing more than he loved trying to get a record deal," BJ says. "Different purpose. When you’re there for a different reason, everything is different.”
Like he spelled out for listeners in the first 41 seconds of In My Mind, the leaps of faith required to get to where he wants to be, is destined to be, don’t scare him. He trusts where his steps are ordered. “Your phone rings, you pick up. Everything isn’t super mapped out. You think too much, you gon’ f**k up. You better understand and trust and just move, man! I’m gonna go with the flow, and if I f**k up, I know how to get out. I’m from Chicago. I know how to get out … I love the fight. I’m like the guy that gets the tattoo and loves the burn.”
Frantic jazz horns are blaring over the intercom above us as we finish our meal, matching BJ’s frenetic switch in tone. Nonchalant responses of the past hour are now punctuated by a seriousness and seismic energy that’s almost scary. The light lilts in his voice are now full-stops hammered in swift blows. F-words are harder now. “That’s how serious I am. No smiles, no games, I’m f**king dead a**. I’m making it back home. Let them shoot up the club; I’m making it back home. I’m here for a whole ‘nother purpose. That’s why it’s that serious to me.”
The walls of the tight alleyway behind Brazos Hall at E. 4th Street and San Jacinto Blvd. mirror the inside of a Thermos, sealing in the persistent heat of an 80-degree day at its prime. Three o'clock sunbeams go unbroken, and the balminess of Austin, Texas’ springtime hangs thick in the air.
Having just finished entertaining a crowd of nearly 2,000 at VIBE’s SXSW showcase, BJ, seemingly unbothered by the heat, is enjoying his extended spotlight time opposite the camera’s lens. He runs through a speedy roster of expressions, posing for each frame with comical grimaces and goofy, enthusiastic gestures, not waiting for direction but instead letting his own carefree personality take over. Interrupting what could've been a stale moment with his tongue stuck out and his eyes stretched wide, laughing as he holds the face for a snap. Dabbing, hopping on top of unsecured fixtures and running down the alley searching for new spots to spice up each shot. “I’m trying to give you something cool,” he says with a wide, exhausted smile.
Anderson .Paak, who treated the same audience to a joint performance of Malibu's "The Waters" with BJ, looks on from the sidelines, still and resting. His camera time just a few moments prior was swift and seamless. One, two, three, a turn here, a zoom in there, and we're done. .Paak is a camera natural, well aware of his sides and angles, primed for posing at a moment's notice, whether it calls for carefully dictated motions or spontaneous rapid-fire. However, despite Andy’s trademark adolescent on-wax voice and youthful appeal, it’s BJ's time in front of the camera that’s noticeably more spirited. Rougher around the edges, even.
I’m glad that hip-hop embraced him first because it allowed him to not get put in a box. —Ethiopia Habtemariam
Unlike .Paak, BJ isn't wearing shades, so the sun forces his eyes to turn to slits until passing clouds grant some relief. Before long, he sheds out of his custom navy blue BJTCK blouson and down to a damp white tee. A trickle of sweat runs down the side of his forehead right past his eyes, but visible overheating doesn't slow him down. Anytime a little shine threatened to ruin a shot, .Paak's manager tossed a towel to wipe the beads away immediately. BJ wiped his own from time to time with the back of his hand, but only if they were a nuisance. He was built to make it work.
It's taken three metamorphoses for BJ to get to this point in his career. The chanteur-in-residence has been working towards a moment like this for a long time—when he could put his calling on a platform and stand firmly upon it, where people could see him the way he's seen himself since the days when he sang a few steps behind the main act.
Before getting booked for gigs off his name alone, in addition to his work with Hamilton, BJ sang background on the road for Jill Scott, wrote for the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Mary J. Blige and Lalah Hathaway and even lent vocals to pre-Yeezus Kanye West for his 2006 track, "Impossible." His first major music gig was singing behind Tina and Erica Campbell of gospel duo Mary Mary "over 10 years ago." He shone subtly even then, with Tina—the admittedly more critical of the two sisters—taking an early liking to his voice, despite the occasional need to stress group cohesion. "He always sang that kind of delay that he sings, that delayed soulful thing," she recalls over the phone. "I remember saying sometimes, ‘BJ, everything don’t have a delay on it. Everything don’t have to have that soulful swag on it. Sing on the beat, not behind it!'"
That same voice is what has become his ID tag. It’s an instrument of its own, distinct in its tone. You can point it out on any placement. Like between the reeds on The Social Experiment’s “Windows,” buried in praise on Chance The Rapper’s “Blessings,” hovering as anthemic runs and warped warbles on Dr. Dre’s “It’s All On Me” or floating through baptismal territory on Anderson .Paak’s “The Waters.”
Making such affecting music is still something of wonder, even for himself. “It’s amazing to me what we do for a living,” BJ says. “I’m still like, ‘Whoa, look what we made!’ It still blows my mind. We’re still excited about it, students of it.”
“Who he is today, that’s definitely not who he was when he was singing with us,” Campbell says. The BJ she met was a very green 19-year-old with a firm understanding of what his voice could become if he put in the effort. He was respectful and professional, of course, but more than anything he was hungry, ambitious and open to constructive criticism. “He took instruction well,” she says. “He was ready to take it all in and become better.”
That adaptability and constant search for growth is imperative in solidifying a long lasting career, especially now that solo tour life is the next evolution of it. BJ’s material sounds crisp and clean coming out of headphones, but performing is BJ's sweet spot and where he's the most in his element ("I love singing. If no one’s in my shop I’m still gonna show up, clean up, clean the windows," he says). In addition to Broccoli City and SXSW, BJ spent the early months of 2016 making his rounds at small shows and major U.S. fests alike. He’ll spend the latter half headlining his own robust international trek that'll take him from Sacramento to Seoul to Stockholm. Budding artists Elhae, Tish Hyman and Buddy will open in select cities.
“As an attendee, you pay to come to see the artist lose himself or herself,” he says. “You pay to come and see them totally give you a whole other level than you’ve ever imagined. They expect you to pull the biggest rabbit out of your bag every time.” He has no intention not to deliver on this expectation, physically prepping his body with added minutes on the treadmill and his ritualistic set of pre-performance pushups. “BJ measures up well for the challenge,” Hamilton says. “He’s sang with a lot of great artists, and he knows what it takes. It’s just about him going out there and doing it. He’s ready. He’s seasoned.”
Habtemariam has taken joy in witnessing him blossom from humble beginnings. "You know, I saw him be a background singer," she says. "[He] literally has to understand to now be at the forefront and really lead the band and lead the show."
“We haven’t had a Stevie Wonder in a long time. We haven’t had another Marvin Gaye in a long time. We haven’t had another Teddy Pendergrass in a long time. Or another Al Green. I embody that. I come from that. I’m going to give y’all that,” BJ told VIBE back in 2013. He was just as excited and passionate during that blip on his promotional stretch for Pineapple Now-Laters as he is right now in the aftermath of In My Mind. It’s safe to say that he’s stayed in line with his goals. “I can’t be Stevie Wonder, I can’t be Marvin Gaye, but I can be the foundation that I think withholds that mold,” he says in New Orleans, five hours before his enthusiastic lady fans shoulder each other out the way to get steady-handed recordings of his debut Essence Festival performance.
Many of BJ’s sets nod to Gaye in some way or another—Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing” is one of his favorites to cover acapella—but Motown Records brought him even closer to his dream of his name being spoken in the same breath as his idol. On June 24, they released a What’s Going On 10” vinyl EP to mark the 45th anniversary of Gaye’s legendary 1971 concept album, featuring BJ on a posthumous duet of the title track. BJ singing right alongside one of his major influences—Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Louis Armstrong are also right up there in his music Mount Rushmore—felt timely and fitting, given today’s global turmoil and spike in police violence mirroring the warrish times that inspired the original 1971 recording.
“It’s just an honor to be honored by somebody that I honor. The homage that I pay to that man, his legacy, his music, his family ... I think it’s remarkable that they would choose me to be a part of that,” he says. “It helps the people connect the dots to why I’m here, who I am, what’s going to take place after this and just how to perceive ‘What’s Going On’ in a different way than they have before. The seriousness, the urgency.”
None of these songs changed my life like this one. I went from BJ the Chicago Kid to Grammy-nominated BJ the Chicago Kid. —BJ
According to Campbell, if he keeps it soulful and sexy and classy, BJ can be just what Brother Marvin was to the music industry: here forever, not just for an era. But it has been—and will continue to be—a slow, patient climb. He has work to do to get people on board ("It’s still under appreciated," he replies when asked if his potential didn’t get realized soon enough), but it’s a journey on which BJ is happy to embark. “I’m starting to understand I’m that one new thing that takes time for people to understand. It doesn’t happen in a day. Everybody isn’t Bryson Tiller, and Bryson Tiller isn’t everybody,” he says, saluting the rapid rise of 2016’s R&B/”TrapSoul” wunderkind. “I understand and enjoy my process. In 10 years, we’ll all look back and understand the journey we took and the curves and the turns and the straights and understand the path we built.”
With the unexpected earthly departures of Prince, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie and others who spoke up and inspired the world with their craft, it’s easy to feel like Gen Z is in short supply of living legends. Although it’s too soon to tell, BJ has confidence that today’s crop of creators will rise to the occasion when it’s all said and done. Maybe he’ll be one of them. “We don’t know til it’s over,” he says. “That’s why you gotta bust your a** everyday. You’ll either be read about or you’ll be doing the reading.”
BJ’s own legacy is still being written every day, with every earnest note and every moment spent as one of this generation’s R&B/soul torchbearers, and he’s proud of the wet ink on the page. The applause he’s been privy to is deserved, and he’s confident in how he’s held up to the icons that paved the way before him. He knows what he stands for and is genuinely proud of the truthful stories he’s sharing. What makes BJ worthy of respect and rememberence is the fact that he tells his stories with such a celebration of the immeasurable wonder and magic of jet-black music—an undeniably resonant worldwide force since the advent of the drum—and is a part of a continuum that truly means something.
"I feel like every day, I really do strive to be better, and the people around me know that,” he says. “Make sure those dudes play [Louis Armstrong’s] ‘What A Wonderful World’ when they release the doves, when they take me back to my ‘hood. Don’t play ‘Notorious Thugs’ until after ‘What A Wonderful World.’ Give me that classy Mafioso moment, and then turn it up. But give me that classy ending. Give me that. I deserve it. I deserve that."