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BJ the Chicago Kid to kids: ‘Focus on the good things’

BJ the Chicago Kid, photographed in Chicago. | Maudlyne Ihejirika Photo/For the Sun-Times

BJ the Chicago Kid enters a downtown restaurant tired from going nonstop since release of his new album, “In My Mind.”

The Motown album, which dropped Feb. 19, is culmination and yet a beginning for this hometown R&B artist/rapper, whose real name is Brian James Sledge.

When we caught up with him last September, he was basking in the industry buzz surrounding the first two tracks — “That Girl,” featuring OG Maco, and “Church,” with Chance The Rapper — the first cuts released from the album.

Back in Chicago to promote the album during a whirlwind weekend of mini-concerts and meet-and-greets, he’s eager to talk about the music.

“It’s a little surreal. Some days, it feels real. Some days it doesn’t,” he says, running his hands through short, twisted locks under a gray hoodie. “I understand this time can go by so fast in the music industry, so whether it feels real or not, just absorb it. Lock in. Stay focused. Just continue to do what we’ve been doing. Try to excel.”

The South Side born-and-raised singer/songwriter long toiled behind the scenes for other artists. He was signed by Motown after his highly lauded, 2012 self-released mixtape “Pineapple Now-Laters,” and spent two years completing his first solo album.

BJ the Chicago Kid. | Maudlyne Ihejirika Photo/For the Sun-Times
BJ the Chicago Kid. | Maudlyne Ihejirika Photo/For the Sun-Times

“The title wasn’t so clear during the making,” he says. “After I stood back and looked at the body of work, and I really understood what I was conveying — being honest to the music versus to a particular concept — I realized this is a small segment of what’s in my mind, you know? I think the album is definitely something a little bit more far-stretched than what would happen on a typical first album.”

A product of the Brainerd neighborhood and graduate of Julian High School, BJ broke into the industry as a backup singer for gospel duo Mary Mary in the early 2000s. Through that first gig, doors opened, but over time.

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“A lot of the songs on this first album came so easy,” he says. “Like, we had a sound check for a college show, and in the middle of that, we ended up creating a song on the album titled, ‘Jeremiah.’ I free-styled every lyric to it that day. When we’d feel a vibe was pretty awesome, somebody would record it, understanding it could possibly never come again.”

Some of the album’s songs are true stories. Others reflect his truest feelings, says B.J., like “Shine,” “Cupid,” “Falling On My Face,” and “The World Needs Love.”

“Cupid was birthed in interviews, when people kept asking me how I feel about love,” BJ says. “I love ‘love.’ Come on, I sing R&B. Anybody that finds love today, I salute ’em. I’m kind of jealous, in a good way. But love ain’t as popular as it used to be. Cupid’s not as busy with his arrows. He’s at the bar having a drink, or just out. He’s not on his job as much. I said, I have to put this in a song. So I called Kendrick Lamar and Rafael Saadiq and we came together at a really, really cool moment.”

Other artists on the album include Big K.R.I.T., Buddy, Constantine, and Isabella.

The album has been a long time coming. After Mary Mary, he wrote for Mario, went on tour with Usher, and then was enlisted to provide material or vocals for some of the biggest names in soul and gospel — Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, P Diddy, Jill Scott, Jamie Foxx, Anthony Hamilton, Chris Brown, Shirley Caesar, Lalah Hathaway and Crystal Aikin, among others. At home in hip-hop, he’d worked with Lamar and K.R.I.T., Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Freddie Gibbs, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Problem; his hook on Schoolboy Q’s 2014 “Studio” earned him a Grammy nomination.

One of three sons of two choir directors, his siblings have followed him to L.A., and this spring he hopes to notch another satisfying moment when he moves his parents out there.

“Chicago’s always been crazy. That whole stretch of Vincennes is nothing but mayhem,” he says of his old stomping grounds between 87th and 95th streets on Vincennes, an area he says “some call the crazy ’90s.”

“To the kids, I just say focus on the magic. Focus on the good things that fill your sleep, on the things that you love and are beginning to love and that take over everything you’ve ever loved. That’s where the gold is,” he says. “If you focus on the magic, you won’t have time to get caught up in the violence in the streets. You can get where you want to be. But you have to search for it, reach for it. Every time I start searching for something, I find a lot more. I can speak to that. I’m from the inner city, born and raised. I understand the streets. The first line in my album is, ‘I love God, but I also love mob movies.’”

Posted March 10, 2016.