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BJ The Chicago Kid: Neo-soul for the actual soul

By Vanessa Tam

bjthechicagokid_2VANCOUVER — A cool Chicago accent wafts in over the speakerphone. “I’m BJ the Chicago Kid,” the voice states matter-of-factly. Born in the windy city and raised in church, Bryan James Sledge, also known as BJ the Chicago Kid, was a regular member of his church’s choir growing up which helped him both stay out of trouble and develop his talent as a soul singer.

Later relocating to LA after graduating from high school to pursue music, Sledge went straight to work singing backup for gospel duo Mary Mary and songwriting for artists such as Joe, Crystal Aikin, Shirley Caesar, and Lalah Hathaway. In 2006, Sledge landed his first big break singing on Kanye West’s track, “Impossible.” Signing to the historic Motown Records in 2012, Sledge is finally where he always envisioned himself to be. “I believed and I knew that this time would come, but you gotta understand that the crazy part about it is that you never know when it’s gonna come. It’s nine times outta ten gonna come after you think it should’ve [already] came. So [the question is], how long can you stand the storm?”

With over 15 years of experience in the music industry now, Sledge has learned to accept life as it comes. “Music [has] taught me a lot of things about life too, even [with] songwriting. Trying to write a song and thinking it’s gonna come out one way and it comes out a whole ‘nother way; that’s how life is sometimes. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.” He says with a chuckle, “But that’s life, it’s never always exactly how you planned.”

His new album In My Mind feels like a culmination of Sledge’s whole career up until now. A perfect representation of his experience in traditional R&B and soul, but in a contemporary way. Finishing the album in just one month, he literally locked himself in the studio where he slept, ate, and recorded over 100 songs. Speaking on his process for choosing the 15 songs that actually made it onto the album, “Um, it [was] very crazy,” he says, laughing. “We was [throwing] some songs back in, takin’ them back out.”

With features from actual friends and collaborators Chance The Rapper, Big K.R.I.T., and Kendrick Lamar, the album has an over-reaching theme of love. From new love to temptation and infidelity, the listener may wonder if every track comes from a personal experience or not. “I do have a personal connection [to every song], but [it’s] not necessarily something that I went through. It could be something that I understand so well.” Sledge explains, “My songs are about [mutual] situations, not just about my personal life. But, my creativity runs wild a lot as well, and my imagination runs wild so…” His voice trails off for a second, seemingly lost in a thought. “‘Heart Crush’ is a song that is very true and honest.” He’s back, going on to share the songs that were inspired by his own personal experience. “‘Church’ is very honest, um what else, ‘Woman’s World’ is very honest.”

bjthechicagokid_3Bringing up a different side of R&B, the side where men croon about drugs, bedding women, and getting fucked up, which is arguably the opposite of what Sledge is all about. “I do feel like I’ve always had a balance, and I think I make some music like that as well,” he says laughing. “Why would you take a preacher with you [say] on a nice romantic dinner? I don’t think you’re gonna play gospel music,” he explains. “You might play some Luther Vandross – but when he’s with his wife, he’s not gonna be a preacher at the moment, he’s being a husband. You know what I’m sayin?”

As calm and decisive as his personality is, so are his thoughts on the matter of where R&B is going as a whole right now. “If you wanna turn up, you put on your turn up R&B, or you just put on your turn up music, whatever your personal preference is. My music as a whole has always been a balance.”

Enthusiastically saying, “This is only my first album on Motown I can’t wait to see the bricks we’ve laid five years from now, you know?”

BJ The Chicago Kid performs at Alexander Gastown on July 27.

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