“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.”