BJ The Chicago Kid fries jerk chicken and listens to podcasts instead of arguing about who is King of R&B.
“To me, it’s just always been more about action,” the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Bryan James Sledge, told ESSENCE, explaining why he never feels it necessary to be “the loudest one in the room.”
“When you just believe in what you’re trying to do and you’re just really trying to get somewhere with it, it’s not really about that conversation. It’s really about them hearing through the music,” he said.
Beginning his career as a backup singer and songwriter, the crooner would rather work alongside his peers than joust with them. BJ The Chicago Kid has worked with Anderson .Paak and JID. His new project 4AM has appearances from Eric Bellinger and Lucky Daye.
He’s spent a few rainy nights humming melodies into his voice memos as the “lavender lemony” notes from Belligner’s “Mediate” candle floated through the room. BJ The Chicago Kid’s contributions to School Boy Q’s studio album earned him BET Award and Grammy nominations while his track “Letter 2 U” helped bring the story of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah to life. “It’s just amazing how this whole thing kind of comes together,” he said about King’s film.
“I’ve done things with Luke James as well as a few other people,” he continued. “So it’s like, I’m always rocking with my bros and my bros always rock with me.”
He has respect for his sisters too. His flirty tracks with Kehlani and Ari Lennox are date night essentials and he scopes out future female duet partners regularly. “Coco Jones is dope, Yebba Smith is dope. It’s quite a few artists that I like that I think are doing their thing and holding it down.
“I’ve always been into and been a fan of artists who take their craft extremely seriously and have a sound of their own,” he continued. Swapping features can allow artists to serve something new to their audiences without sacrificing their voices. “It makes room for other people to really just be themselves,” he added.
An independent artist with a clear identity, BJ The Chicago Kid focuses on the day-to-day tasks of being a boss instead of convincing others he is one during hour-long Instagram live sessions. “The internet is a very cool place, but a tricky place as well. You get the good and the bad and you have to be good enough to decipher the rest,” he warned.
BJ approaches his public persona with the same precision he uses to describe the sonic effects he desires to studio engineers. There are no entanglements taking away from his end goal of hit-making. When you hear BJ The Chicago Kid you think music and not memes. “To be intentional makes you decide right now what you want to be, how bad you want to be it and how intense you need to do it to be received the correct way,” he explained. Even being six snubs from the Grammys, an organization often criticized for missing the mark on relevant Black music, hasn’t managed to rattle his signature Chicago cool.
“I don’t like the attention that I’m not supposed to have,” he stated simply.
In his low moments, the artist’s family helps him avoid being loud and wrong on social media. “My mama is my therapist and my family is a big thing for me,” he said proudly. He says binging “documentaries” and “talking to my nieces on the phone,” also play big parts in his mental hygiene. The line between his personal and professional lives remain intact, he said, because “I had friends before I came here.”
The South Side Chicago native’s appreciation for privacy doesn’t keep him from wanting to establish strong connections to his fanbase, which is full of average gen Xers and millennials who spend less time buying bottles than balancing bills. “I know all of my fans don’t have money to go rent a yacht this weekend and spend a weekend on the water,” he said. He wants them to hear their experiences echoed in his words. His duets describe passion that translates to the apartment kitchen floor and not the secluded Atlanta compound.
“It’s really understanding who I’m speaking to,” he said. “I know for the most part, my fans and my supporters, they actually really have a real-life kind of thing happening. ” When he’s up until “six in the morning” their perspective is what inspires him to “jot down ideas or song titles or concepts in the project.”
His song “Fancy,” speaks to the balling aesthetic that has cloaked social media in a never-ending grasp for the good life, but it’s a rare comment from a remarkably relatable catalog. “If they go to a lounge, they go to a club, they go out to the spot dancing you only in there or a few hours out for the rest of time it’s real responsibilities. So I try to balance that and the music as well.”
He credits the late Nipsey Hussle, someone who mastered the art of growing with their fans, with inspiring some of his career decisions. “We used to talk all the time and it’s just some conversations that resonated with me,” he said.“That pretty much ignited my call to action,” he continued before adding “Shout out to Nipsey.”
BJ studies the path of his songs after they’ve left the sterile, linen-scented studios he constructs them in. “I learned how further this goes, how wide this phone goes,” he said, referencing the accessibility of digital streaming providers. He gets excited “to see what the analytics are sometimes.” He values being able to find out “ when this music is played and what music gets played the most, and who is playing certain songs.” The information presents “some of the most unique perspectives from our side.”
“I think it’s amazing to learn how this music travels once you put it out, man, it travels so far. So that’s one of the coolest things,” he said.
He believes the tenants of creating translate to steering a career. “A lot of things that you guys have seen, it’s been our hands, our blood, our tears, our work, it’s been our fingerprints.”
Behind-the-scenes stories circulating on podcasts like Drink Champs, a favorite of BJ’s, often describe solo artists fulfilling many unseen roles outside of the recording booth, without pounding their chests to seek credit.
“When you work in a business with other partners you don’t know what partner made the call,” BJ said. “You just know the call was made.”
4AM is now streaming across digital service providers.