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BJ the Chicago Kid: R&B Young Lion Spans Soulful Styles With a Spiritual Passion

"You can't just naturally pick [the church influence] up. You have to be in that climate for a long time."

Who: Recent Motown signee Bryan Sledge, an A-student of ’70s soul with a defiantly confessional hip-hop streak, as heard loud and clear on last year’s ambitious Pineapple Now & Laters. “My aggression comes from hip-hop,” he explains, “even the way I pronounce my words.” And he’s learning from the best, most emotive MCs, too, frequently collaborating with Kendrick Lamar, and stealing Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s 2012 single, “Shame.” His stage name, BJ the Chicago Kid, shows his dedication to a talking point—a hometown that shoves him into city savior role. “What’s being displayed [in the media] is only the negative,” he says. “There’s so much good going on in [Chicago] that’s not being portrayed.” Example? “You’re speaking to one of them, man.”

Eclectic Dialectic: Sledge’s answer to what he’s listening to at the moment isn’t a bad way of unpacking his old-fashioned yet forward-thinking R&B: “Willie Hutch, Isley Brothers, Ice Cube, Do or Die, a little Kanye, a lot of John Coltrane, Kendrick, Schoolboy, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, of course.” Meanwhile, his pedigree as a background singer for everyone from “Mary Mary to Diddy-Dirty Money” and even Snoop, Dre, and that Tupac hologram at Coachella, affords him a rarefied comfort with a variety of R&B-tinged styles. “Growing up, I went to church on Sunday and heard [secular music],” he recalls, “but Monday through Friday I would get a ride from school from the cat that grew up on my block and I’d hear Jay-Z’s ‘Money Cash Hoes,’ or Scarface and DJ Quik.” He is a singer who relishes in forging connections and bridging musical gaps.

So Selfish: Mindful of the differences between being a songwriter and a hook man and a capital-A artist, Sledge explains the former as “giving [a song] a facelift,” while facetiously praising his solo work as successful because it’s “selfish.” Pineapple Now & Laters “was the music I loved,” he declares. “I didn’t go by what was popular or what people were gravitating to, I went with what I loved and how I was living. That’s what I mean by, ‘it was very selfish.'” Consider the juxtaposition between “Aight,” a warm-hearted love song (“And when we start to kissing we’ll both be listening to the sounds of our hearts”) and “King Kong,” a swaggering declaration of awesomeness redolent of The-Dream.

Take ‘Em to Chuuuch: Raised by two choir directors, Sledge’s raw soul is deeply informed by gospel music and performance, which places him just a little to the side of so many others simply raised on the radio: “You can’t just naturally pick [the church influence] up. You have to be in that climate for a long time. It is a blessing to have and it is to my advantage because it helps me get where I need to go more quickly.” Sledge is quick to trace the tradition of church-tinged R&B in heroes like D’Angelo and Prince. And church is just another word for truthful emotion, according to him. “Some people call it soul, some people call it the church,” he says. “All of that is connected.”