BJ the Chicago Kid - In My Mind (2016)

BJ the Chicago Kid
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On the sixth project and Motown debut from an R&B crooner who has been a featured guest on nearly 40 tracks in seven years, one can hear both the maturity and the compromises made by BJ the Chicago Kid. For a down-to-earth artist whose references often make it crystal that he is not only aware of the soul music canon, but among its most ardent students, some of the more urban pop leanings peppering In My Mind will feel like pulled punches beneath his talent. As will the uncharacteristic vocal restraint by the church-trained artist who can sing rings around many of his more popular millennial peers. And yet, In My Mind manages to still remain an overall soulful and enjoyable experience with a few standout tracks that have potential to become tomorrow’s classics.

On the sixth project and Motown debut from an R&B crooner who has been a featured guest on nearly 40 tracks in seven years, one can hear both the maturity and the compromises made by BJ the Chicago Kid. For a down-to-earth artist whose references often make it crystal that he is not only aware of the soul music canon, but among its most ardent students, some of the more urban pop leanings peppering In My Mind will feel like pulled punches beneath his talent. As will the uncharacteristic vocal restraint by the church-trained artist who can sing rings around many of his more popular millennial peers. And yet, In My Mind manages to still remain an overall soulful and enjoyable experience with a few standout tracks that have potential to become tomorrow’s classics.

As a singer-songwriter, Bryan James Sledge, aka BJ the Chicago Kid, has been an industry prodigy since co-writing “For You” for Dave Hollister at the age of 17. But, it was a series of independently released mixtapes starting in 2009, culminating in the unexpectedly brilliant Pineapple Now-Laters indie debut album in 2012, that became the kind of collage art that makes critics swoon. The sultry, sandy vocals were heavy with soul, dripping with references specific to Chicago and the history of soul and various conversational interludes by elders and street folks as sage as they were country, as they were street, much like the city the Chicago Kid hails from. Star-crossed collaborations with major talents such as Kendrick Lamar on songs like “His Pain” further cemented the Chicago Kid’s reputation as an artist to watch.

Nearly four years later and now releasing his major label debut, BJ the Chicago Kid delivers songs that are sometimes conflicted, with often progressive presentations in the Kid’s own arrangements and the refreshing production techniques of producers like Mike & Keys, Big K.R.I.T., Da Internz, Cooper, and DJ Khalil, but with underlying messages that are often conservative, steeped in respectability politics, and reflective of the singer’s deeply religious upbringing. For example, there’s a thinly veiled self-righteousness embedded in “Home” which both celebrates BJ the Chicago Kid’s roots, but also takes a brief, subtle jab at those that take out their rage in their neighborhoods without taking into account the lack of true ownership by rioters that may cause things at home to be “burned down or boarded up” in the face of injustice. There’s also a bit of a Madonna/Whore complex threading the lyrics of a song like the single “Church (featuring Chance the Rapper and Buddy),” especially when compared to the R. Kelly meets James Brown retro soul of the “Woman’s World,” one accusing a femme fatale of tempting the church going BJ with sex, drugs, and other wages of sin to his damnation (“Hopefully, we can go to heaven!”), while the other song celebrates those pure-hearted, good girls. All three songs are sonically engaging and musically enjoyable, but they also feel more than a little calculated, if not out and out pandering in ways that can inspire cynical eye-rolls among some listeners.

The Kid’s struggle between the street and the spirit feels the most honest and devastatingly real on “Jeremiah/World Needs More Love (featuring Eric Ingram),” which references the prophet Jeremiah but also avails itself to both sacred and secular interpretative readings in its allusions to romantic love. As with many soul artists of old, the pull of both worlds are present in BJ the Chicago Kid’s art which sometimes creates a sweet tension and other times demonstrates a creative cognitive dissonance that jars.

At least on “Woman’s World” and “Jeremiah/World Needs More,” BJ is singing out. Throughout In My Mind, BJ the Chicago Kid holds back far more than expected, singing more straight notes, avoiding the top of his range unless he’s singing false, and limiting the amount of melisma he employs in his storytelling, letting the lyrics and his tone do the heavy lifting. On a piano and strings pop ballad like “Falling On My Face” the restraint reads as sensitivity and emotional sincerity, so much so that BJ may have found his own highly coverable song in the vein of John Legend’s “All of Me” and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” whose melody bears a passing resemblance.  On a duet like “Love Inside” featuring Isabella, the Chicago Kid finds himself outshone on his own track by his decision to be so laidback in his vocal approach. A few big notes and surprising run structures on some of the project’s filler would’ve greatly enhanced an album that is pleasant and highly listenable more, but not a consistent slamdunk.

One song that is all net is the D’Angelo and Marvin Gaye flavored “Turnin’ Me Up,” which displays the funky side of the tenor and shows off his agility in harmony and call and response.  The intimacy cuts work as well, with “Love Inside” and “The Resume (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)” representing often clever songs that prove more sensual and seductive than profane. Really only “The New Cupid (featuring Kendrick Lamar)” gives pause in its coarse opening (“F**k your love, mother**k your love…”) before enveloping itself in a layered cotton candy confection of more digestible old school soul.

Where Pineapple Now-Laters and In My Mind are having a conversation with one another is on the more avant-garde songs like “Crazy” and “Man Down,” and the old-made-new sounds of “Turnin’ Me Up” and “The New Cupid,” where both the past and present are cut and paste in ways that are sometimes disjointed but more often compelling in their creative references and risk-taking. Whereas ho-hum urban pop anthems and radio ballads like “Shine,” “Wait Til The Morning (featuring Isa),” and “Heart Crush” feel like the kind of routine songs that Chris Brown, Trey Songz, or Eric Bellinger would’ve been handed.

In My Mind demonstrates that BJ the Chicago Kid can find ways to stay as true to himself as possible, within the confines of major label and urban radio expectations, but he’s not immune to the creative compromises it takes to play the game. Luckily, BJ the Chicago Kid is talented enough to ensure he’s coming out with an album that won’t be a complete stranger to long-time fans, and is ultimately not being the one getting played in this uncreative industry game. Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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