BJ The Chicago Kid delivering good vibes on ‘1123’ album, tour

“Chicago is deeper than the music; it influenced who I am and even the man I still want to become,” the artist says.

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With a voice that produces a ready-made sample, BJ The Chicago Kid has been a favorite of the Top Dawg Entertainment roster

With a voice that produces a ready-made sample, BJ The Chicago Kid has been a favorite of the Top Dawg Entertainment roster including Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, not to mention a slew of Chicago mainstays like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Kanye West.

Alex Harper

BJ The Chicago Kid was asleep early the morning of November 20 when his phone started buzzing repeatedly.

“I thought something was wrong,” he admits, not realizing at the time that he had just been nominated for two Grammy Awards for his new R&B/neo soul masterpiece, “1123,” named for the 35-year-old’s birth date.

Released over the summer by legendary Motown Records, it’s the artist’s second major label album and has been hailed by outlets like Vice for “magnifying the soul of the Black Experience.” The 16 tracks on the just-released deluxe edition are an astute homage to classic crooners like Marvin Gaye via BJ’s similarly smooth-lipped vocals, while brilliantly giving the genre a fresh overhaul thanks to compelling songwriting and contributions from buzz artists like Anderson .Paak, Offset, PJ Morton, Rick Ross and Afrojack.

Untitled

BJ THE CHICAGO KID

When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30

Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25

Info: livenation.com


“It was a beautiful moment and so unexpected,” he adds of the Grammy nominations, confirming his attendance at the upcoming ceremony on January 26 where he could take home the awards for best R&B album and best traditional R&B performance. “I’m just so honored to be acknowledged by the [Recording] Academy. That is what a lot of us play the game for, and to be recognized at this moment — that is truly the win.”

Born Bryan James Sledge, BJ got into the game early. Born and raised the youngest of three boys by choir director parents in Chicago’s Brainerd neighborhood, he says: “My whole family played different instruments in church. Everybody had the same talent, and it was kind of like a forced marriage I never wanted to divorce. … My dad began to break down soul music for me, and my mom broke down gospel music, and my brothers broke down R&B and hip-hop. So that was my musical gumbo. It was hard not to be influenced by it all.”

Sledge’s first recorded work was a song he co-wrote, which appeared on a record from fellow Chicagoan Dave Hollister (of Blackstreet fame) in 2001. When he uprooted to Los Angeles to further his career, he took his first job singing backup for gospel group Mary Mary, which led to studio sessions with contemporaries like Lalah Hathaway and Mary J. Blige. Yet it was hip-hop’s near obsession with Sledge that brought him to the forefront.

BJ_The_Chicago_Kid___Alex_Harper_Photo_2.jpg

BJ The Chicago Kid

Alex Harper

With a voice that produces a ready-made sample, Sledge has been a favorite of the Top Dawg Entertainment roster including Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, not to mention a slew of Chicago mainstays like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Kanye West — the latter whom he applauds for his newfound blending of the church into his music. “I’m just proud of him for actually walking into something that he believes knowing that not everybody would understand,” Sledge says.

Of the genre crossover Sledge has also become known for, he adds: “Knowing how I was raised — you’re in church on Sundays but then Monday through Saturday you’re back with your homies. I grew up understanding the cross and the corner and it defines who I am. And beyond that, hip-hop music is so potent right now. It’s like the new rock ‘n’ roll; it’s speaking from our generation’s point of view. This is time repeating itself with a different sound and a different look, but the influence is the same.”

Those influences abounded on the impressive “Pineapple Now-Laters” self-release in 2012. Shortly thereafter, Sledge was acquired by Motown thanks to a solid relationship with label senior vice president Ethiopia Habtemariam, who helped Sledge to release his label debut “In My Mind” in 2016. It also gave him early Grammy attention.

“I’m simply trying to out-do my favorite songs from my favorite artists,” Sledge says laughing, before turning serious. “I watch a lot of old documentaries and old live shows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye or Isaac Hayes, anything I can get my hands on. I like watching who they are talking to with their lyrics and also who is in the audience — that is the most beautiful part to me. James Brown is talking to black people but in that audience is every race in the world that could possibly love him.”

Sledge finds that groove on “1123,” which is full of poignant mementoes set to music. It earned the artist a recent spot on NPR’s Tiny Desk where he broke the record for most songs played in a session, as well as a guest spot on the soundtrack to the critically acclaimed new film “Queen & Slim.”

One of the standouts on “1123” is the song “Reach,” which Sledge says is his way of speaking to the youth to let them know there’s love and understanding when things go wrong.

“I have a heart for our youth, and this was my due diligence of showing love and shining light in a dark place.”

Opening jam “Feel The Vibe” is another personal ode “about my house that turns into a party when the family gets together to cook,” he says. “I haven’t had the feeling of hearing soul food mentioned in a song since probably Goodie Mob, and the feeling it gives me is something I wanted to relive with a different generation.”

“Feel The Vibe” is a favorite even of former President Barack Obama who included it on his summer 2019 playlist. Sledge was also previously tapped to perform the National Anthem at Obama’s farewell address in 2017.

“It’s such an honor to know he’s still watching me and listening to me,” Sledge says, still very much tied to his hometown, including wrapping up his current tour with a show November 30 at House of Blues.

“I’m saving the best for last. There’s nothing like the shows I have when I’m at home,” he says. “Any time I’m home, the feeling I get is incomparable. Chicago is deeper than the music; it influenced who I am and even the man I still want to become.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

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