BJ the Chicago Kid has the wisdom of a veteran artist, slipping life advice into conversations with ease. He uses sports analogies like an older brother would, and will quickly school you on his influences: the soul of Al Green, the mystery of D'Angelo, and the innovation of J Dilla. When you think he can't cram more adages into his delivery, he does. "Sometimes you gotta eat the vegetables to get to the meat," he says quoting who he believes to be John Mayer. This proverb has nothing to do with food; it's how BJ the Chicago Kid decided to construct the songs on his new album 1123. He approaches songwriting with tact, giving you the testimonies you need to hear before surrendering to what's appetizing, or what it should sound like. With features from Anderson .Paak, Buddy, J.I.D, and Offset, the album makes the Black experience feel universal and cements BJ the Chicago Kid as a forward thinker in R&B.
Three years ago, Stereogum described the growing gospel inflections in hip-hop a "come-to-Jesus-moment." BJ the Chicago Kid's debut album, In My Mind, released the same year as Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book, was an emotional baptism with rattling tambourines, the story of the prophet Jeremiah, and the age-old debacle of trying to squeeze in a Saturday-night rendezvous before Sunday morning service.
"To know [In My Mind] is a project that people can use as a magnet and attract them to more of my music is a plus for me," he says.
His hospitality on opener "Feel the Vibe" sets the tone for the intimate conversations on 1123. A choir of kids screaming outside underscores the song's gritty hip-hop production. Anderson .Paak takes the reins on the introduction, recalling the improvised meals of his youth, like cereal with water and Hamburger Helper dinners. "Some people call it ghetto, I prefer 'another level,'" he raps. By the time BJ comes in on the hook, you feel like part of the family. "Come on in, close the door, and feel the vibe / We got macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and chicken inside," BJ sings. "Can't forget the cornbread / Talking shit with the old heads / Mama dancing to some Al Green." The first four minutes of 1123 present a portrait of Black life in the summertime, magnifying the small details and conjuring up memories of mothers fussing about doors left ajar as the air conditioner runs.
"I want to consistently remind Black people of our power," he says. "['Feel the Vibe'] reminds them of who we are, who we're talking about, and what we come from. Even the food I mention—all of these were scraps fed to slaves. Now we have soul food restaurants where everybody is eating our food. Rumplestilskin. We took the hay and made it gold."
Collaboration shines on 1123. Kent Jamz, J.I.D, and Buddy join BJ on "Get Away," a J Dilla-inspired song that defies song structure, with the four bouncing around the frenzied track as they please. "Playaz Ball," featuring Rick Ross, is a smooth ode to the annual gathering held for pimps on the West side of Chicago. BJ holds his own next to the rappers, but he also fits seamlessly with singer Eric Bellinger on "Back It Up," as the pair croon adlibs reminiscent of Jodeci in the 90s.
"I would see him do his verse and I would try to top him on his," BJ says, recalling the studio sessions that took place following an Instagram shoutout. "It was healthy competition. We're pushing each other to give the best product we can give together. That's what makes real collaborations. Collaborations are overrated now because a lot of people that don't need to be together be together these days. [R&B fans] understand why we did this together. Me and Eric helped defy that gravity."
The features breathe life into 1123, but BJ the Chicago Kid is capable of doing the heavy lifting on his own. Singles "Close" and "Time Today" are sensual and slow, like In My Mind's "Love Inside" and "The Resume." A piercing anecdote cuts through the album, offering a perspective for some who have seen more trauma than successful relationships. "I had a partner tell me he ain't scared to get shot, he wasn't scared to die, but he said he was scared to love," he says at the beginning of "Too Good." The song is BJ's way of explaining how a man's ego can make him guarded.
"I'm giving [women] the game on 'Too Good,'" he says with a sly smile. "You know the guy you thought you would be with and y'all aren't together… You're probably thinking, 'What the fuck did I do wrong?' It probably wasn't you. He probably just wasn't willing to kill the old him."
The hook says it plainly: real men get scared sometimes. "The scariest shit is when you can't find an imperfection. You know what people do when we don't understand something? We run away. I'm definitely not the first guy that ever felt like that, but as artists, it's our job to be the first to say it."
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.