Home is where the heart is, and for BJ the Chicago Kid, it’s all in his name. The singer currently resides in Los Angeles, but it’s his Southside roots that have shaped him, getting him ready for his biggest moment yet, the release of his major-label debut, In My Mind.
“That's what makes me who I am. There's no BJ without Chicago. That's home,” says the R&B artist born Bryan James Sledge. “That's where my sound comes from. That's where everything comes from.”
It was actually his soulful sound — that native Chi-town sound he mentioned — that brought him to L.A. in the first place. At the age of 19, he left his hometown and headed west after booking a gig as a backup singer with gospel duo Mary Mary. His sweet voice captivated the duo and Mary Mary became the first of many accomplished gospel, R&B and hip-hop artists — Kanye West, Stevie Wonder and Dr. Dre among them — to enlist his vocal help.
Needless to say, the move away from home was life-changing. “This is where it all happens,” BJ says of the city that made his dreams come true. “I learned from some of the best. I've had some of the best opportunities here in L.A.”
In February, he released his Motown debut, In My Mind, to stellar reviews. The album captures the raw spirit of BJ’s signature hip-hop–tinged soul music and showcases his gospel background; the singer is the son of two choir directors from the local church back home in Chicago. The standout tracks “Church” and “Wait Til the Morning” touch on one of the many real-life themes in the album, as the 31-year-old singer shares the experience of a young man torn between temptation and religious values.
According to BJ, In My Mind was recorded in just 30 days, thanks to his creative tunnel vision. “I make the best music when I'm consistent at it. When I'm waking up to it, when I'm going to sleep with it, the whole nine.”
And compared with his previous projects, there was a bigger budget and a bigger phone book, thanks to the major-label push. The 15-track album isn’t shy on features, with strong verses by Big K.R.I.T., Chance the Rapper, Buddy and frequent West Coast collaborator Kendrick Lamar. Each rapper adds to BJ’s soulful storytelling without taking away from the main attraction.
“I don’t like to ride with guys just because they’re hot,” the Grammy-nominated singer explains. “I just listen to what the music tells me and that’s how I pretty much decide. If they work, they work. If it doesn’t work, we’re still friends. I don’t force the music.”
Near the end of In My Mind, there’s a track that hits close to home for many of those who left in pursuit of their passion. With its straight-to-the-point title, “Home” finds the smooth-voiced singer longing to make it back to the people he loves and the neighborhood places he knew. “Jungle taught me how to rumble ’round the world,” he sings. “That’s why I’ll always love Chicago/It made me humble, taught me how to pick myself up when I stumble.” According to BJ, the lyrics were freestyled into his smartphone’s voice recorder as soon as he heard the instrumental.
For now, for BJ, home is wherever you find your place. “I think what makes anything home, not just for me, for anybody, is you have to find your way,” he says. But wherever he goes next, BJ the Chicago Kid will continue representing his city.
BJ the Chicago Kid's In My Mind is out now on Motown Records.