ravy, the title of BJ The Chicago Kid’s latest album, not only serves as a savory, creamy topping for cuisine but also as a history lesson, highlighting the richness of Black heritage.
“It smothers. It covers. It makes everything taste better. Sometimes stuff it shouldn’t even touch, it makes it taste better. And I think that’s what we do as Black people. That’s our flavor. That’s who we are as an essence,” BJ tells Rated R&B over a video call, days before he tapes the 2023 Soul Train Awards.
He continues, “Long before our existence, previous generations been blowing people’s minds. To even want our body types to be enslaved. We have something that others don’t have. We’ve always been special, but I think to remind ourselves that we are special. I think the more our kids and our kids’ kids see these things, that confidence gets even bigger than what we have. We begin to evolve into better things.”
The Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter is reflecting on how he came up with the title for his new album, Gravy, now available on RCA Records, in partnership with Yeti Beats’ Reach The World Records. The project is a collaboration with producer Yeti Beats, who has worked with artists such as Doja Cat and Burna Boy.
Gravy is the follow-up to BJ The Chicago Kid’s 2019 album, 1123, released on Motown Records.
BJ’s deal with RCA Records and RTW Records allows him to maintain control, similar to his recent time on the indie circuit.
“Honestly, this is a lot more comfortable for me,” he affirms. “It’s one album, one situation. We get to decide to spend the block if we want to or not. That freedom is amazing.”
During the call, BJ repeatedly refers to Gravy as a concept album and explains that this approach has allowed him and Yeti Beats to refine a specific sound.
“We allowed ourselves to not go outside of certain years of music and the sound of those years to stay compacted in a certain amount of years for a certain sound that we wanted,” he shares.
BJ and Yeti Beats, accompanied by a few writers such as Charlie Bereal and the band The Indications, traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to set up shop at Royal Studios for the production of the Gravy album.
Royal Studios is the same studio where legendary soul singer Al Green recorded his landmark albums Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love with You. BJ and his team absorbed the memorabilia present with ease.
BJ says, “Locking yourself around a certain amount of years musically, I think you can’t go past this and you go past that. So you have to find your magic within these walls. I think that’s what made this project a little bit more different than any of the other projects that I’ve done.”
“This project is a dream manifested into reality for me,” Yeti Beats previously said. “I had the idea of producing a record influenced by the music of my favorite soul singer, Al Green, and recording it with a live band. Traveling to Memphis to record in his studio was an immense honor for all of us.”
Gravy consists of 15 hearty tracks, including the previously shared “Forgot Your Name” featuring Cory Henry and the Coco Jones-assisted “Spend The Night,” which is gaining attention on Billboard and TikTok.
“I think it’s pretty cool, especially for even the TikTok stuff to happen organically. It feels good to feel organic love. That’s the best,” BJ notes when asked how he’s processing the early success of his Coco Jones collaboration.
Additionally, Gravy features guest appearances by Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, Andra Day, Chlöe, Robert Glasper and Freddie Gibbs.
In Rated R&B’s interview with BJ The Chicago Kid, the Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter talks more Gravy and unpacks a few tracks from the project with producer Yeti Beats.
I understand that you met Yeti Beats some years ago, but due to various reasons, you couldn’t collaborate. Yeti Beats gained popularity during this time through his work with artists like Doja Cat and Burna Boy. Did his success with them create pressure for your musical collaboration?
Nah, I would say no pressure. It does take time because Yeti’s only one person, so he can’t necessarily be at my session and at a Burna Boy or Doja session [at the same time]. In the meantime, I was doing other things as well. I think too, because I write the songs, if I’m not living, I don’t really got nothing to write about. So, to have the space to live life and incorporate it into the music made it feel really cool. This music is probably some of the most recent music that has been recorded and been out fast enough. For example: “Turnin’ Me Up.” The music was done two years before I put the lyrics to it. I put the lyrics to it and made the song three years before the song came out. So that’s what, five years? And that’s one song. I think it was really cool to have this process kind of come out before the conversation changes, or just how we feel and the world changes majorly from the conversation of the album. I think it’s dope for them to get it in that kind of real timing. I want to do more of that and those are my plans for sure.
What was the direction that Yeti Beats was trying to push on Gravy, and what did you bring to it?
I wanted to learn more pop rules that could be applied to my music. I wanted to be produced by someone that I trust. Honestly, I feel like I’m a chameleon and I can do anything. It felt really cool to be able to do something slightly different from what I do. I do soul music, but with a popular twist or a popular front to make it more single-ish. In some instances, less was way more. I think the whole purpose of me and Yeti getting together was for me to definitely learn from what they do in their world and their style of doing the things that I can kind of take with me for the rest of my journey musically. And introduce my people to what he does as well. So it’s really cool to have somebody with that expertise from a different side of the fence to kind of teach me what can still work on my side of the fence. And we still make music that he’s never made before because he never made soul music before.
I read you went to Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, to record a bulk of Gravy, along with other writers and musicians. How did you initially discover this studio? Whose decision was it to record there?
Man, Yeti got all those points. I knew Al Green had recorded somewhere. Where? I did not know. I knew it was in Memphis, but Yeti picked the studio. He picked The Indications. I picked Charlie Bereal to come with us. Charlie is one of the guys [who] understands my sound and how I move, so I can still make sure my fingerprint and my sound [are] there, so people that follow my music still have some type of familiarity. We were gone from home for seven days, but we recorded for five days. We did 17 songs in five days, pretty much. [We] came back to L.A. [and] tweaked those songs a bit, adding strings and horns in Memphis and in LA again. [We] added a couple of new songs, features sprinkled in between those and we pretty much had the project. We [spent] more time figuring out business than recording.
Did that change of scenery inspire some of the music as well?
Yeah. What’s crazy is the last song on the album, “We’ll Be Alright,” I wrote sitting on the steps of the studio. I went outside to have a smoke. I just wanted some fresh air, and I thought about my grandmother, and that song just began to write itself. I ran to Charlie [Bereal] and was like, “Yo, we gotta come up with something with this,” and we actually recorded a live video as we recorded the song. So there’s video of the actual song being recorded in that one take.
Do you think the final product of Gravy could have been created anywhere else but Royal Studios?
Yeah, it could have been because the gravy is in me, not the studio. That’s the cool part about it. The studio just enhanced the creativity. I think any location different from your normal location creating or recording will just take your mind to a different place. But I think no matter where I go, my brain is gonna adapt and I’m gonna still find [myself] in that place, and then the real work starts.
“Never Change” features Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. What’s your fondest memory of working together on the song?
Just him being the smoothest person to work with. No issues. No nothing. Believe it or not: Philip Bailey was probably the easiest feature to get done on this project. And that’s very rare. I’m still waiting on features back from In My Mind (laughs). But he is just the man. It was just dope that he showed up. He didn’t need what everybody else needed to show up. He showed up [and] got it done. And when we got that done, we all knew this was definitely an even more special song on the album.
What was the creative intention behind “Nobody Knows”?
Funk is the evolution of soul, and we just spiced it with a little funk. I’ve always wanted to implicate a little bit more funk into my music, but you need a little tempo to implicate that in a way where people can actually live to it and dance to it. It was a perfect time, and I miss doing ups in a cool way, so if it gets funky, I’m on it.
My favorite is “Crazy Love,” which co-stars Andra Day. The song reminds me of ’70s-era soul duets, just singing of making it through the not-so-good times. What’s the backstory behind it?
Andra Day, number one, possesses so much dopeness in what she does. I think she’s the perfect person to help break down and explain how that thing really ticks and tocks. I think everybody’s relationship got a little turmoil, but to the public, they want to make it seem perfect. As the characters of this song, we own the imperfection and make the imperfection perfect. What’s perfect is imperfection. That was the very first song [we did] before we even went to Memphis. That song was so simple.
“Honey” featuring Chlöe is another upbeat song on Gravy, a tempo we’re getting used to hearing from you. What’s the story behind this track?
Chlöe is a doll, man. I met Chlöe and her sister (Halle) years ago when her parents were managing them and [they were] super dope and talented. Just to see what they’ve grown into and how creative they are, and honestly how blessed their careers have been since then, I’ve always been watching. But the maturity of their voices, the maturity of myself, we always wanted to do something together, but how can we find the perfect thing where it doesn’t feel like it was forced? Because I believe my fans can really tell if something is forced [or] if I’m not all in it. They know when something’s different, and they [are] honest, and social media gives them a voice and a way to say it right away. I’m never into selling anything fake. I’d rather only sell what I sell. So I’m just honored that we have that type of rapport with our supporters where they really understand that we care much about the quality and the quantity. Not just one or the other.
What’s the main ingredient you want fans to get after listening to the album?
Honestly, I want them to understand what gravy is. Understand what that is and how the gravy is implicated into their life [and] their lineage because it ain’t just music. [It’s] living our lives soulfully from what we eat to how we dress to our family members. It’s just how we were raised. That’s what Gravy is about. Man, gravy is the granddaddy of sauce. So I want them to take this music, and honestly, I just want them to really live life with it. From playing cards and cooking to riding in the car, I want them to live life to it. It’s way better when they use the music as a soundtrack versus just playing music.
Stream BJ The Chicago Kid’s new album Gravy below.