BJ The Chicago Kid has sung backup for Usher, written songs for Mary J. Blige and been sampled by Kanye West. But on his new album, In My Mind, his own voice and lyrics are the main attraction.
The artist born Bryan James Sledge spoke with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about being drawn to love songs even as his generation moves away from certain romantic traditions, and why Chicago is so important he had to put it in his name. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read an edited version of their conversation below.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro: I imagine that in all those years singing backup and writing for other artists, you had to work in a few different styles. Did it expose you to a range of things that you might not have found yourself?
BJ The Chicago Kid: Absolutely. Whether it was taping with The Killers, or doing something with Miss Jill Scott or Anthony Hamilton, it was always a different obstacle course. A different day, new problems or new things to learn — one or the other.
Looking through your lyrics on this album, a lot of the songs are centered around people caught between the urges of youth and their Christian values. The character in "Wait Til the Morning" cheated on his wife, and he's trying to keep his lover from telling her about it.People obviously live this reality every day, having faith and yet straying. What is it about that tension you find inspiration in?
The normality of it. I think that's part of the connection: That's something that everybody can actually find a common place and listen. Whether it's a happy song, or a sad song, or just a thought-provoking song, it's something that we all can listen to and make us say, "Hmm."
My uncle told me when I first moved to L.A., "All of these keys on this piano have been played before. Every subject has been sung before. How can you sing it the best?"
You grew up on the south side of Chicago, and even though you left for L.A. when you were 19, it seems like the city remains important to you; it's part of your performing name, after all. What is it about Chicago that still speaks to you?
Chicago pretty much gave me the rules and the mental state that I have to get me through. It helped form the tough skin that you must have to be in the industry, and in life. Chicago taught me when to talk, taught me when to shut up, taught me when to stay, taught me when to go. And really, it all forms to make BJ The Chicago Kid.
I want to ask you about another song on this album — "Woman's World."This plays, of course, off the lyrics to James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Why did you feel that song needed updating?
You know how sometimes, we can read or listen to our own periods or our own punctuation? I feel like we only listen to "This is a man's world," and we forget about the part where he says, "It wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl." So I wanted to take that part of that song and make that my magnified part. I wanted to make that my main part of the song.
A lot of the songs on this album are about a particular chapter in a love story: There are breakup songs, there's finding love, there's losing love, missing love. But there's one song where you really zoom out and talk about love as a bigger subject: "New Cupid." Those are some heartbreaking lyrics! What did you mean by a line like, "Cupid's too busy in the club"?
You know, falling in love, in our generation, just isn't as popular as it used to be. So that was my coolest way of saying, "I'm the new Cupid." There's a part in the song where it says, "The responsibility lies on me, since Cupid ain't around / So when you feel like falling in love, let my music push you right on down."
"Without a love song, something's way wrong," you write. Do you think that music and love go hand in hand?