Exclusive: BJ The Chicago Kid Details ‘The Opening Ceremony’ and Teases New Album
Photo credit: Jack Beaudoin
It’s hard to believe BJ The Chicago Kid released his major label debut album, In My Mind, just two years ago. Looking back, the Motown Records artist had an impressive debut era. He went on a headlining world tour, earned three Grammy nominations — including “Best R&B Performance,” “Best Traditional R&B Performance,” and “Best R&B Album” — and racked up over 75 million streams on Spotify alone.
In January, he released a vulnerable track called “I’m Sorry” as a treat to his fans. “It’s a song that’s pathetically R&B,” BJ explains to Rated R&B. “I feel like it’s R&B at its most essential feeling,” he continues. “R&B is made to say the things that you can’t or don’t have the balls to say. It’s like you can’t figure out the words to say but somehow this writer and this artist makes this song say exactly how you feel. That’s a part of my job as an R&B singer.”
BJ most certainly doesn’t have an issue with tapping into his feelings. Earlier this month, he dropped three new songs collectively titled as The Opening Ceremony. The lyrically-rich project consists of “Going Once, Going Twice,” “Nothing into Something” and “Rather Be With You.” The songs are just a taste of what fans can expect on his next album that is slated to release later this year.
While fans get acclimated with his three new tracks, the R&B champion teamed with his colleague Ro James for their co-headlining The R&B Tour. Rated R&B caught up with BJ at his tour stop in Washington, D.C. In our interview, he dishes on The Opening Ceremony, his upcoming album, his fight for R&B and more.
If you could add one more artist to The R&B Tour, who would it be?
It would definitely be Luke James. That’s our brother. He’s going to pop up at one of these shows, I’m not going to say which one, but he’s going to pop out and have some fun with us.
What inspired the songs on The Opening Ceremony?
On “Going Once, Going Twice,” I was really eliminating some things in my life that I didn’t really need. I wasn’t necessarily auctioning things off but I thought it was a cool way of having a song in that type of phrasing…describing how auctioneers get rid of things.
“Nothing Into Something” is a song that says you were here with me at the start and right now having what we have is a beautiful thing. It’s about seeing the growth and evolution of our love.
“Rather Be With You” simply describes the feeling with her is like no other. It’s the one place you’d rather be versus anywhere.
Are these three songs tied to your upcoming album in any way?
Absolutely. This is not an EP. To let the secret out the bag, a lot of people put EPs out to see what songs stick with the people. These three songs are on my album.
What can you tell us about the album?
The album is incredible. I’ve grown. I’ve evolved. Life has evolved for me. I’ve grown and seen the world with my label Motown Records. It’s been an incredible asset to add to the music. I just can’t wait to put it out the right way.
Is there a title?
I can’t say yet.
Who are some producers you worked with?
Cool and Dre, Danja, Jarius Mozee, Tubb Young and Karriem Riggins.
The title of Opening Ceremony and its artwork seem to be inspired by the Olympics. Does the album play on that theme?
Everything I do is huge and worldwide. My first tour was a world tour. So, everything I do begins with the world — not just my community, not just my neighborhood, not just to the people I’ve met but it’s to the world.
You recently said you’re “fighting for R&B, not trying to change it, just push it.” What elements of R&B are you trying to preserve for the masses?
I’m trying to preserve very essence. Our forefathers and our foremothers have laid down such an awesome pedigree of what we should follow. I think it’s up to us to take the responsibility to evolve it, be ourselves and really take it to another level — be creative. Keep the people involved…slow song, fast song, it doesn’t matter. It’s how life has evolved away from me and has given us other opportunities and lanes to help it grow and express ourselves so we should use that.
Speaking of evolving, how would you say you’ve evolved since In My Mind?
Life evolving, my family evolving, my music evolving, my producers evolving…working with producers I’ve never worked with before that I’ve always idolized.
Harmony Samuels’ impressive production resume is constantly growing. After working with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child and Brandy, he adds music icon Janet Jackson to the list of his high-profile collaborations. The London native is the genius behind the production of Jackson’s new single “Made For Now” featuring Daddy Yankee.
How did you end up collaborating with Janet?
Janet’s A&R is a good friend of mine — [ Jareiq ‘JQ’ Kabara ]. He’s a good dude. I’ve known him for about 10 years. He called me and was like, “I want you to come meet Janet and talk to her about her next record.” I was really intrigued because I just couldn’t believe that I would be working with Janet. Long and behold, she was preparing to go on tour last year and I got to meet her. I was in her room and she so elegantly walks in and as she comes in, she’s like, “Hey! Whose birthday is May 16?” and I’m like, “Me” and she’s like, “We share the same birthday.” I was like, “Yes, connection!” I never knew that her birthday was the same day as mine, which was great. I was really excited that we had something in common.
Then she starts to explain what she wants from her album and her record. And basically, she expressed she wanted a record that brought people together. She wanted to bring the world together. She wanted to talk about love — her having a son now she appreciates life way differently. With all the devastation and so much destruction happening in the world, she wanted something to bring people together. She wanted to see people dance. She wanted to see people happy.
What was the process of creating “Made For Now”?
We held a writing camp for ten days with four or five writers all from different cultural backgrounds and different history. When we started writing the record, I kept thinking I had to do something Janet hadn’t done before but still makes her feel like Janet. It was a hard task because she’s done a lot (laughs) — from Control to Velvet Rope to her last album [Unbreakable]. That’s a lot of music to try to find something that she’s never done before. So I’m sitting around and I was like, “What she hasn’t done? She hasn’t done anything Afrocentric. She hasn’t done anything with like Afrobeats.” So to make sure, I went and checked her song history and her number ones. I made a few records that have been successful in that world in the past— Destiny’s Child’s “Say Yes” was a huge example of that. So, I wanted to do that again. I wanted to bring the world together that way. And you know cultural stuff, when you go to carnivals and festivals, it always brings people together. There’s a colorless line that happens.
I was getting dressed one morning and the way the song starts, that exact line was playing in my head. I looked up like, “Jesus are you for real?” I put the melody on my phone and I rushed to the studio. Within an hour, I make the track and everybody is like, “Yo, this is crazy.” [Janet] and her brother Randy came to the studio and when they heard the record, they love it. They thought it was perfect. [Janet] went in the booth, added her own vibe and made the record hers.
We actually went into the studio to cut the record with another legendary producer Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You can understand my excitement. Not only did I get to work with Janet but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the studio She turned around and she said to me, “I really love this record. I believe it’s special.”
When did Daddy Yankee get involved?
A few months later as the song was being developed, JQ calls me and says, “Hey man! I’m going to put Daddy Yankee on the record, what you think?” And I was like, “Hell yeah.” I thought it was perfect because it now brings another world. I was really excited. Just working with him at the shoot and watching him perform, was an awesome experience.
How many different versions of the record were created?
Well, it was over a span of six to nine months of getting it all together. There were at least nine versions. We just tried so many different versions but this version felt like it kept everybody engaged. We were really, really proud of the outcome.
There’s also an EP in the works. What can you say about that?
I worked on most of the EP. Each song has a different feel. Each song has a different style. She bodies it! She does her thing.
Is there anything you discovered about yourself throughout the process of working with a legend?
Patience (laughs) and staying calm. When you’re working with icons, you move when it’s time to move. I felt like she was always willing to try different things. My patience allowed me to try different versions and try different things regardless if I felt like it was right or if I didn’t like the idea. It was just awesome to experiment and open yourself up for change and trials. And just being around someone who is so iconic, yet so humble. She’s so humble and so genuine.
Sade is one of the few artists who can take a lengthy hiatus, drop an album, steal the show and take another break. The singer started her first disappearing act after she took eight years to release a follow-up to 1992’s Love Deluxe. After releasing her album Lovers Rock in 2000, Sade wasn’t heard again until 2010’s Soldier of Love.
It’s been eight years now, and Sade still hasn’t fully emerged from her music slumber to bless us with a new full-length album. She did, however, tease us with an original song (“Flowers in the Universe“) contribution to Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time soundtrack. Although, official solo music could be coming soon.
Sade’s longtime collaborator and famed British musician Stuart Matthewman — who is an original member of the band — exclusively tells Rated R&B, “We’re working on a new album.”
Matthewman says Sade and their creative team currently have “a bunch of songs,” that eager fans will hear once they’re satisfied with the final product. “When we’re happy, then we’ll let everyone else hear it.”
Like his comment in a previous interview with Rated R&B, “It might sound funny but we write and do music to please ourselves and just hope that [we] have good taste and other people will like it.”
Matthewman says Sade’s label home, Epic Records, respects her artistry and doesn’t pressure the release of new music. “The record company knows there’s no point in nagging us or giving us deadlines. It doesn’t really help the process,” he says.
While other artists are content with releasing music more frequently to remain in the limelight, Matthewman says, “[Sade’s] not interested in the fame or any of that [other] stuff. She likes to put out art. So when it’s ready, it will come out.”
Matthewman tells a funny, yet relevant story that perfectly sums up the expected time frame for Sade to drop new music. “Years ago, I think it was when ‘By Your Side,’ the song came out, and big posters were stuck around New York. Someone sprayed or wrote on top of it, ‘Bitch sings when she wants to.’ Sade loved it.”
Singer-songwriter Elese Russell, better known as Sia Amun, had a free ride in the music industry. Shortly after moving in with her dad, at 16, the daughter of Steve Russell Hart of R&B group Troop and original member of The Underdogs was performing at The Staples Center for The Los Angeles Sparks game. Then, they began working on her album, which seemed all too fast for Amun.
“I grew up watching [MTV’s] Making the Band, thinking I have to go through artist development,” she tells Rated R&B. “I guess when you’re signed to a label but in real life, it’s like, ‘Game time.’”
Amun’s ride into the music business, though, came to a stretching halt when her father learned she was involved in a relationship. “It was all she wrote when he found out,” she says. “He’s like, ‘I’m trying to build a career and you want to focus on having a boyfriend?’ So, my project got put on on hold.”
After getting a pep talk from her grandmother, who Amun considers her best friend, she took charge of her music career. She started working behind the scenes, hosting showcases for local artists who proved themselves in front of top A&R’s. She even performed songs recorded during her sessions with her dad. Soon, she was following in her father’s footsteps as a songwriter after one of her demo tapes landed in the hands of legendary musician Teddy Riley.
As a result, AMUN provided background vocals on Lady Gaga’s song “Teeth,” which was featured on her 2009 album The Fame Monster. She went on to co-pen hits for major artists such as Trey Songz (“All We Do”) and Mary J. Blige (“Indestructible”).
In 2017, AMUN released an EP The Blue Dream Project. The 6-track project, which includes her funky single “Flowers,” is laced with feel-good vibes about love, life and marijuana.
As she gets adjusted to her new home (and the culture) in Atlanta, AMUN puts her feelings on wax with her latest track “Single AF,” which is based on her current love life.
“I’ve been single for almost two years,” she reveals. “Before that I was in a relationship for like six years. So it’s really new to me.”
Rated R&B caught up with Amun at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Atlanta. We chatted about her new single “Single AF,” her forthcoming project, ingredients on writing a successful song and more.
How’s your experience been in Atlanta so far?
I love it here. I’ve been here for like two months, and today is my first day moving around and really being able to experience the culture. When I first got here I was really just focusing more on my personal self … getting my mind right. This is like my first time really moving away and feeling like, “I don’t know when I’m coming back.” So, since I’m going to be here, let me take my time. I didn’t hop back into working. I just got to a point where I am trusting more. I know that God sent me here so I’m going to take it day by day. I used to be like, “I have to plan this out. I have to write this down. This has to happen.” I don’t do that anymore. I’m really at a place where I’m more spiritually driven in my career more than ever. But overall, they really support each other here. I love the music. They have their own sound.
Growing up on the West Coast, how did it help mold your overall sound as a songwriter and an artist?
If I could be 100 percent honest, I never focused on the sound of the West Coast per se. I think that my influences, like, Brandy, India.Arie, Beyonce and Fleetwood Mac, who my grandma introduced me to very young, is what helped shaped my sound.
Before transitioning into your stage name Sia Amun, the artist, you were Elese Russell, the songwriter. If you could do it all over again, what would you choose to do first? Or would you keep it the same?
I understand that I am on a journey and it’s already mapped out. So, I definitely wouldn’t change anything or do anything different. I think we are where we’re supposed to be at this exact moment because if it wasn’t meant to be, then why are we here? Why does it happen if it wasn’t meant to happen? You know….
Besides your father, who else in the songwriting industry inspired you to write music?
James Fauntleroy was a big inspiration. Just watching him from the beginning stages of his career – writing songs for Tyrese and a couple of other [artists] – to where he’s at now is more fuel for me. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite songwriters in the world. Stacy Barthe is amazing. And a lot of my friends too …. like Candice Wakefield.
If you had to create a recipe for writing a successful song, what would be the three main ingredients?
Melody … concept … and … relevant.
Why do you say relevant?
Music is about connecting. If I can connect to you, then we have a connection. You’re going to love this song. So, whatever I’m talking about has to have some relevance to you … and the next person … and the next person. It has to have relevance to your target … who you’re selling this song to and who you’re trying to reach. And just relevance of what’s going on in R&B today.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was with my little brother. We were sitting outside of the studio in my dad’s car and it was a remix to “‘I’m ‘N Luv (with a Stripper)” by T-Pain and another song. It was the very first time where I had my Mac computer and we recorded a song that I personally wrote. Of course, growing up, I was writing songs in my diary when I was like 9. I’ve been keeping a diary since I could write (laughs) and I still do.
Is that where you write most of your songs at today? Or do you write them in your phone?
Umm .. both but everything ends up in my diary. All my thoughts. Whatever I’m feeling. Whatever happened in my day, everything is in there. So, I’ll remember if I’m at the studio, like, “Oh, this is what I was feeling.” And pull from there for sure. But I write my notes in my phone too (laughs).
You recently released “Single AF,” your first single since 2017’s The Blue Dream Project. What’s the story behind the record? Is it inspired by your life or someone else’s?
It’s definitely a true story. I was in the studio with my guys Ryan Toby and Ali [Prawl]. And Ryan’s like, “So, wassup? Where are you? What we talking about? What’s going on?” And the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Well I’m single as fuck.” And I held it out like really long and everybody started laughing. And it was right away we were like, “That’s a song.” It was like writing in my diary, this is how I feel right now. Life is great. I’m not single and having a pity party. I’m single and happy but I don’t want to be. It’s not what I’m used to but I’m not about to settle just because. So it’s just really where I am in life.
Is there a full-length project attached to the new single?
I’m working on it. I’m excited about it. No date, no name. I’m honestly just taking it day by day.
Is there anyone you want to work with on this project? And is there anyone you’ve been working with on this project consistently?
Right now, as far as writing, I’m doing it solely just myself. With “Single AF,” I co-wrote it with Ryan Toby, who’s one of my inspirations as a writer. I’ve admired him as a writer for a longtime. I talked to him all the time, like, “Bro, we gotta finish this project.” So, he’s someone I plan to finish this project with. But right now, I’m just getting my ideas out. I’m still feeling out for the vibe so that it makes sense and that I got it right.
Your previous EP The Blue Dream Project was filled with positive vibes on life and love that sometimes marijuana helped create. What is the driving theme behind this upcoming project?
Life is the driving force. This project is more personal. It’s more of this is who I am. My experiences … where I’m at … I’m maturing. My wants are changing. My interests are changing. My conversation is changing. My taste in foods are changing. I’m really a woman now. So, this project is definitely where I’m at today. It’s still a vibe for sure (laughs).
Your style is unique and different. Who are some of your style influences?
I really love Rihanna. I love Louis Vuitton. I love the brand Gucci. It’s more than just the clothes for Gucci. I like to get deep, going past the surface. I’m looking at the movement. Their business strategies. My brother PUTYAHEARTINIT is one of my style influences too. He’s always been a fashion guy growing up. His opinion is one I definitely respect. I go to him and be like, “Is this fly or nah?” (laughs). But for the most part, I just do my own thing. I don’t really care what no one thinks. It’s whatever I feel like today.
You’ve been in plenty recording sessions with major artists including Lady Gaga and Trey Songz. Is there any session in particular that stands out or means the most?
I’ve been in a lot of sessions. As a songwriter, the session that changed my life was with Mary J. Blige. I was at a crossroad in my life. I learned so much from her in those sessions. From her sureness and knowing exactly who she was to what her fans wanted and what she wanted to talk about, like, it was what it was. A lot of the questions that we were asking her to be able to write these songs, I couldn’t answer those questions. Like, “What’s up with me? Why don’t I feel the same way about this? Why does it feel like work?” Then, I was in the studio like two weeks after with Brandy. Two days after, I just stopped going. I couldn’t write for anybody else. I needed to figure things out. I took a break and went to London and put [The Blue Dream Project] out. And things have been what they’ve been since then. Now I know that I’m good now.
So, you restored yourself?
Yes, definitely. That’s what “Private Reserve” was about … the whole concept of that video was like a snake shedding its skin and being reborn. Being renewed.