Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Throughout his career, Bryan J. Sledge has kept good company. Over the last decade and a half, under his stage name BJ The Chicago Kid, the R&B singer-songwriter has amassed an impressive discography, lending his vocal and writing talents to a who's-who of hip-hop, R&Band gospel acts (including, among others, Shirley Caesar, Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper and Kehlani) and releasing a handful of projects of his own. In My Mind, his full-length debut on Motown, is evidence of why some of music's best and brightest are aligned with the versatile artist.
In My Mind is a soul record, though not "soul" in the throwback sense we've come to expect. Informed by decades of influence, it is inspired by tradition, not mired in it. BJ's brand of rhythm and blues is an amalgam of the history of black music: Gospel, blues, pop and jazz and, of course, hip-hop are all represented. Thematically, he covers familiar territory with songs about love, sensuality and infidelity, yet his approach is all his own.
BJ juxtaposes the sacred and profane to illustrate a timeless tug of war — between faith and higher ideals on one side, and carnal needs and worldly pleasures on the other. "She say she wanna drink, have sex and do drugs tonight ... but I've got church in the morning," he sings, ultimately giving in to temptation in the aptly titled "Church" — but not before praying for salvation.
He revels in depicting the imperfections of a man and the powerful emotions that arise when those flaws are exposed (see: "Fall On My Face"). In "Wait Til The Morning," he pleads with his lover, not in an attempt to win her back, but to implore that she not to call his wife and reveal the adultery. As earnest as he is messy, the song's philandering protagonist just wants to spend one last night at home before his infidelity ruins it all.
BJ has as much flair for the romantic as he does for the dramatic. In "Resume," he seduces, using a job as metaphor for the "work" he'll put in on the focus of his affection, while a looping backdrop of keyboards, finger snaps and Auto-Tuned vocals gives him a chance to coo like Ron Isley. That falsetto is also used to great effect in "The New Cupid," which features a sample of Raphael Saadiq's "Oh Girl" as part of a song about music where emotion has been replaced by bravado and bottle service; BJ figures, "Cupid's too busy at the club," so he takes it upon himself to bring love back. It's a goal he fully accomplishes in the stirring ballad "Shine," a tender moment that's also great wedding song material.
Yes, In My Mind is a soul record with all the ingredients that make R&B great: emotion, sex appeal, spirituality, vulnerability. The kid from Chicago is all right.