Photos by Bryan Allen Lamb
Waiting for BJ the Chicago Kid, one best remain patient. Sure, you could find frustration in that hour spent by your lonesome in a kitschy Jamaican-themed restaurant in downtown Chicago—especially knowing the R&B singer is meticulously dressing himself in a hotel room many floors above. Or you could instead sit tolerantly, biding your time until your moment arrives. After all, you’d only be following BJ’s lead. “When you think you’ve had enough,” BJ says minutes later upon arrival, sitting down over a plate of oxtails and assessing his decade-plus ascension to his current moment of mainstream music-industry recognition, “you have three more hours of waiting.” He laughs and says it again for emphasis: “When you think the waiting is over you have to wait more!”
BJ has waited long enough. It’s why he sits here now—hoodie, ripped jeans, orange New Balance shoes and a camouflage Leaders baseball hat—eager and open; he's a 31-year-old man who knows nothing in this life is handed out. Yes, BJ the Chicago Kid is a tender-voiced, shape-shifting vocalist—one who has written and recorded with Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, and what seems like every major player in hip-hop, R&B, soul and gospel—but he’s foremost a worker. A tireless servant to the craft who broke out with 2012’s lush, excellent independently released mixtape, Pineapple Now-Laters. A man who knows In My Mind, his equal parts slick, funky and soulful debut album released last week via Motown Records, could easily never have come to fruition.
Artists gush about their experiences working with the humble BJ, whom friend and collaborator Joey Bada$$ calls “a real person.” In My Mind producer John “J-Keys” Groover Jr., one-half of production duo Mike & Keys, calls him “our generation’s version of a Marvin Gaye.” But the singer brushes off such praise. He knows nothing in the “really serious” music industry is guaranteed.
“I had real moments where I was contemplating leaving music,” says BJ, without instigation. “Times it got so hard I didn’t know if I wanted to hang in this. It takes a lot. But I’ve hung around.”
Work ethic. Talk to enough people about BJ the Chicago Kid and that word will come up countless times. Dude’s got it in spades. “Definitely one of the hardest hustles in the game,” Soundscape Studios owner and Chicago hip-hop label Closed Sessions co-founder Mike Kolar says when asked to describe his frequent collaborator. Kolar has been working with BJ for years, but he recalls seeing him around the studio a great deal in particular when they were working with Chance the Rapper for the latter’s acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape. “He’s the music game little engine that could,” Kolar adds. “He just kept chugging and putting one foot in front of the other. He just overcame everything and kept working and grinding and not letting something set him back or stop him.”
Determination notwithstanding, BJ’s innate sense of melody and creative spontaneity has afforded him a legion of loyal collaborators. Nico Segal, better known as Chance the Rapper collaborator and Social Experiment band member Donnie Trumpet, says of BJ: “His parts come together in a matter of minutes because there is no barrier between his mind and his vocal technique.” Segal recruited BJ for his album Surf, specifically the track “Windows,” and Nico recalls, the singer started creating off-the-wall noises in the booth. “There were moments we couldn't even tell it was him singing,” Segal says. “Those sounds and moments separate him from a lot of other vocalists. In those moments he is more of a producer, more of a musician than just a singer. His ear for what the song calls for extends beyond his own regular voice; he sees the big picture, the song. That type of musical sensibility is really what makes BJ special.”
By age seven, BJ knew his ear for music was a special one. Born Bryan James Sledge and raised in Chicago’s rough Brainerd neighborhood on the city’s South Side, one of three sons of two choir directors at Prayer Van Church, the young boy fell hard for music at a young age. It happened when cleaning his family’s house as part of his weekly chores. “I felt feelings that I didn’t think people my age were supposed to feel from music,” BJ says, smiling as he remembers moving the family radio into whatever room he was cleaning at the time so not to miss a moment of his favorite hip-hop, R&B or oldies song. “I understood it deeper. That idle time with music and my maturity helped me understand what I felt first from songs before I was even able to record.”
With preachers for parents, BJ began singing in church at a young age. Music, he says, kept him off the streets for the most part in his rough, violence-ridden neighborhood. “Music saved my life,” he says matter-of-factly. While attending Percy L. Julian High School, BJ joined the school band. His teacher was amazed someone with BJ’s talent could learn to play a song after hearing it once yet couldn’t even read sheet music. BJ also got into songwriting while in high school; he even penned a song for Chicago jazz icon Ramsey Lewis with the help of local producer Kevin Randolph.
After graduation, Randolph was hired as musical director for gospel duo Mary Mary, and BJ was hired in quick succession as a background vocalist. To that end, at age 19, he moved to Los Angeles. Word quickly spread of BJ’s mammoth talent; he began catching the ear of A-list talent. (His current manager, Steven McDaniel, recalls sitting in a coffeeshop in New York City with Jill Scott five years ago, both gushing over an early recording of BJ). The then-20-year-old was soon singing background for Scott, Stevie Wonder, and Usher, even performing on the Grammy stage in 2005 with the last and James Brown.
BJ is the first to admit his time in the background was a challenging if not crucial one. “It was a serious time of waiting and having to understand certain things I wanted versus what I needed,” he says. “Some days you’ll be the only one believing.”
Linking up with rappers like Kendrick Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment crew offered BJ an opportunity to step out from the shadows. Joey Bada$$ first heard BJ's singing on his sweet hook on Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 mixtape cut "Faith." “Ever since that I’ve been a fan of BJ and wanting to work with him,” says Joey, who now considers BJ a close friend and collaborator.
“I never took it for granted,” BJ offers now of the opportunities that followed, including collaborating with Kanye West on the Mission: Impossible III cut “Impossible.” “Happy to work with some of those guys, always,” BJ says. “That’s me understanding their caliber and them acknowledging my craft. It’s a pat on my back. It reminds me that it’s a long way from Chicago.”
On 2012’s Pineapple Now-Laters, BJ’s a crisp blend of vintage R&B, bedroom soul and conscious hip-hop—highlighted by the Kendrick collaboration “His Pain”—BJ fully showcased his capabilities as a solo artist. Not only did the project earn him a record deal with Motown, it also found him working thereafter with artists from Snoop Dogg to Jamie Foxx.
Yet despite a slew of acclaimed features in the years that followed, on projects such as Chance’s Acid Rap and Dr. Dre’s Compton, not to mention a Grammy nomination for his hook on Schoolboy Q’s 2014 track “Studio,” this time it was his new fans' turn to wait and wonder. But the result, In My Mind, is, as BJ acknowledges, his most accomplished work yet. From the groove-indebted “Turnin’ Me Up” (“That’s offering music at a black church”) to the gospel-infected “Jeremiah/World Needs More Love,” the Raphael Saadiq-sampling “The New Cupid,” or the spiritual radio single “Church,” on which BJ moans, “She say she wanna drink, do drugs, and have sex tonight/but I got church in the morning,” there’s a hard-won maturity to BJ’s newest creation.
“I’m recycling all of this emotion and this feeling,” BJ says of channeling his multi-year grind into contemporary creativity. “I sing from a different place.”
BJ arrived to the studio last year with a clear vision for his album, says In My Mind producer Michael “Money Mike” Cox Jr. “With BJ we built the album before we got in the studio,” Cox explains. “We hung out every single day and spent time together outside of music. So when we went in the studio it was actually really fun. No pressure. He knows what he wants off top.”
The singer is quick to note his music, while owing a clear debt to artists like Curtis Mayfield and D’Angelo, is affected by the varied artists he admires, from the Beatles to Dixie Chicks. “All of this stuff adds to make this big monster vocally and creatively,” he says. “I’m always surprised by the results. Because every song starts from silence. That’s amazing to me.”
Music remains sacred to to BJ. He feels a need to protect it; in his mind, it’s a gift delivered to him from on high. In the Chicago restaurant he’ll lean in close, as if to let you in on a secret, telling you how he believes music equals power. “It’s a feeling that makes people forget about the bills, the bad kids, the tripping’ baby mamas, the divorce, the loss of the job,” he says of his chosen artistic outlet that both pays the bills and keeps him sane. “Just for one second. One song. Three minutes. Whatever. It’s power.
“You have to understand music is the relief of the shit that stops you from going crazy,” he continues. “We all go through things in life. And we channel it through different things; some people do drinking, some people do drugs. I’ve learned to channel mine to music.”
Even after all the hours logged, the work, the energy expended and now, at last, the debut-album payoff, BJ the Chicago Kid admits those slinky hooks he croons, those singsong verses he delivers with precision—they still elude him more often than not.
“That’s why I’m still kissing this girl called music,” he says with a smile. “That’s why I’m still flirting with her.”
Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer living in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.
Dan Hyman's got church in the morning. Follow him on Twitter.