J the Chicago Kid is a man of few words. Instead of talking about it, he allows his music to do the speaking for him. His art is a reflection of who he is: passionate, authentic and developed.
Breathing new life into soul music, BJ genuinely gives us his rendering of the music we grew up on while serving as a reflection of the times. Now that matters are directly in his own hands, he has much more to give but on his own accord.
The Windy City native has returned to his independent roots after parting ways with Motown Records. For nearly a decade, the legendary label undoubtedly had a significant presence in his career, and he wants more than that for his legacy.
“I think everybody loves the imprint of Motown,” BJ declares to Rated R&B. “The foundation. The originality. The artists. The level of potency that Motown had then, I think, is well respected. I wouldn’t mind having that type of understanding when it’s all said and done on my career side. I understand there’s a lot more work to do, but the style of music, the type of person I am, the conversation I have via music, I think, it’ll be an awesome place to have something like that, by the time it’s all said and done.”
Going back to being an independent artist was the best choice for BJ, as he has felt like he’s been moving in that way for some time. The ability to move in the way he sees fit gives him much more room to flourish as a creative. Going this route includes being able to produce and share more material than usual, a thing fans will greatly appreciate from him.
“One of the things is the frequency of music being released more,” he assures. “Seeing me more visibly, seeing me more often. I think that’s a big part as far as getting the music to the fans. That’s one way that I think would be extremely better. It’s already been that way so far.”
BJ’s career began to pick up traction at the top of the 2010s as he laced budding rappers with his relieving tone, a necessity needed to smooth the sharp hip-hop tracks with an R&B element that only he could provide. With the current trend of rappers doing their own vocals, making way for what has been coined as melodic rap, BJ believes that there’s still a place for R&B singers to still add their special magic to rap songs like in the past.
“I think it still happens,” he notes “The art is just getting lost a little more. It helps show the difference between the people that are trying to push the music forward or the people that are trying to make music with the sound that’s popular now. It says a lot.”
As most came on board from hearing BJ on the Grammy-nominated hit by Schoolboy Q “Studio” in 2015, his debut album Pineapple Now-Laters in 2012 heightened the attention to focus on him solely as an artist and not just as a singer placing features for rappers.
Pineapple Now-Laters came at a time when R&B was enduring an interesting yet awkward phase. There was a noticeable shift as some peers took to blending and bending the genre to configure it into an exploratory realm. BJ leaned against the likes on the other side of the spectrum who stuck closer to the original tenets of the genre. Extracting musical facets from the 1970s and 1990s, the classic album reassured fans that R&B was indeed in great hands.
He proudly expresses, “That’s the baby that started all of this. That’s the first thing I believed in, walking away from background singing, forming something of my own for people to listen to my creativity my way, the way I see it, the way I hear it, the way I touch it. It would forever be a stand-alone album; the way it was made, the people that made it with me, where it was made, my mental state of going through what I was going through at the time. Financially what I was going through.”
BJ recalls the circumstances he was under during the process of creating the album. “We just ain’t have s**t. It was bare minimum. You’re giving it all you got, you’re trying to make it from somewhere and you know, doing your best with this project will help the destination, arrival, or at least seeing it or passing it. That was my vehicle and I had nothing. I had zero, nothing. Wasn’t homeless, but I had nothing, no money, not even a lot of connections. I literally used what I had to make soul food the best that I could and that’s what it was.”
Fast forward nine years later, four Grammy nominations and three albums in, the artistry of BJ the Chicago Kid continues to evolve and edify. His latest EP 4 AM, inspired by the time of day his creativity comes alive, signifies a new chapter in his career. While the title has a simple and straightforward meaning, the attraction to the music and allowing it to take fans deeper than the surface is the key takeaway for this project and beyond.
“I think the music from my side is already going to give them [fans] a certain version or a certain way to take it or a certain ride, but I love people’s interpretation of my music,” BJ acknowledges. “It gives it art. It’s almost like when you’re at an art gallery and it allows the person that’s viewing the art to have more of a deeper understanding or what it means more to the consumer when the music takes them on their own type of understanding. I love that.”
He continues, “I don’t want to just take over their brains with what I want them to see. What does it make you see? What does it make you feel? Taking people on that ride, some people really rock with you for that reason, or that’s one of the reasons why they rock with you for life. I never want to exempt them from that. It’s not just about me.”
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Collaboration isn’t a foreign concept for BJ, as seen with his impressive collection of features. In April, he was seen in the studio with R&B legend Ronald Isley shortly after the Verzuz episode with The Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind and Fire. While he didn’t directly share what they were working on, being able to honor one of his favorite’s was an unforgettable moment.
“I don’t want to blow up his spot for what he releasing but, that was my first time I’ve ever been around him in a way that he could remember me forever and have an example of my gift,” he shares. “I told him he Unc now. I felt elated to be able to give him his flowers in person, for real. I was more honored to tell him what he’s done for me and thank him for what him and his family has done for us musically and providing us with good times through our best times and our worst times.”
Long standing fans are familiar with BJ’s revamps of R&B classics. His form of giving flowers to the artists he respects spans from tributes to D’Angelo and Usher to “Come and Talk To Me” by Jodeci and more recently, The-Dream’s “Fancy.” He’s aware that fans enjoy that aspect of his artistry and he isn’t afraid to present his heroes their musical bouquets. BJ knows he has much more to say and as an artist in his own right, his personal work will always come first.
“My only job in doing them [covers] is to remind people that amazing music exists that they don’t know, and to pay homage to the artists while they’re living,” he says. “I just love giving artists their flowers and letting them know how amazing that music has touched me and others.”
BJ has grasped the fact that this is much bigger than him; in a way, his path was ordered to be based in this career field. Connecting the dots has served a sense of certainty that defines his drive on an intentional level.
“All of this stuff is so connected from how I was born to…like, one day I woke up and it all made sense to me,” he realizes. “It made so much sense, even to the high school and elementary school I went to. The elementary school is Mahalia Jackson. Percy L. Julian was the high school I went to. My high school was named after a scientist. My elementary school was named after a music pioneer. Now, I’m a musical scientist. It’s so weird how much all this shit adds up. It f***s me up sometimes, but I accept it, I love it.”
Listen to BJ the Chicago Kid’s new EP 4 AM below.