BJ the Chicago Kid's EP of D'Angelo covers last month wasn't a dramatic reimagining of the material; there was no attempt to update the performances to meet 2016 expectations. Save for a few added lyrics, BJ just stayed true to the sound of Voodoo, so much so that the casual listener could easily mistake his renditions as alternative takes from those Electric Lady Studios sessions. As it turns out, it was an omen for what was to follow.
Describing BJ The Chicago and his new album In My Mind as “soulful” would be criminally undermining to his artistic process. Since the turn of the decade, rappers looking for the extra pinch of emotion; that perfect balance of harmonic expression, have turned to one of the last gatekeepers of traditional R&B to zest their records. Despite already possessing a bankable catalog to his name, In My Mind marks the urbane vocalist’s major label debut, which, technically serves as a second first impression to the musical universe.
Bryan James Sledge's first proper album has been a long time coming -- well over a decade, by one measure. He made a somewhat inconspicuous entry during the early 2000s, singing backup for Mary Mary, appearing on Stevie Wonder's A Time to Love, and writing songs for gospel and R&B artists. He continued to operate in the church and on the streets; the same year "A City Called Heaven," written with brother Aaron, was recorded by Shirley Caesar, he appeared on Kendrick Lamar's "Faith." Motown signed Sledge in 2012 and quickly issued a highlight from his self-released Pineapple Now-Laters.
Bryan James Sledge, who goes by the moniker BJ the Chicago Kid, has a soft, gentle voice, which is perfect for delivering multiple love letters. On In My Mind, his first major-label release, he doesn’t sing as much as he coos, adoringly, at the object of his affection, whose identity is renewed in each song. He might bring on current rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Big K.R.I.T., but the real wellspring of his inspiration is Chicago soul music, and on In My Mind he both honors and renews the classic form.
Despite not releasing a project since his 2012 full-length debut, Pineapple Now-Laters, BJ the Chicago Kid’s stature has risen consistently over the past four years thanks to impressive features on cuts from the hip-hop elite. Now that it’s finally time for the Windy City vocalist to package a new bunch of tunes under his own name, some of those big names stepped up to take over the feature role — everyone from Big K.R.I.T. to Chance the Rapper to Kendrick Lamar guest on In My Mind.
"I love God, but I also love mob movies," says BJ the Chicago Kid in his first verse, leaving no question to the open contradiction between faith and savagery on major label debut In My Mind. The singer hopes he can "go to heaven" on "Church," struggling to make the righteous choice between pleasure and a date with God. The soulful, Kendrick Lamar-assisted "The New Cupid" features the duo addressing and searching for legitimate love in a time of cheapened sexcapades.
Hip-hop is in the throes of a war of conscience. For the first time since the early 1990s, there is a viable, socially aware counternarrative working in the mainstream, alongside the genre’s more celebratory side. It’s made for fascinating music, and has also begun to bend hip-hop’s historical arc. It’s only logical that some of that would spill over into R&B, where BJ the Chicago Kid has been working on the fringes for a few years, with a series of mixtapes and the excellent independently released album “Pineapple Now-Laters.” Several of his standout moments (“His Pain,” “Kush & Corinthians”) have come in songs alongside Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop’s ascendant moral center.