Make no mistake. As closely tied as BJ the Chicago Kid may be with hip hop today, he is through and through an R&B artist. His early mixtapes contained a plethora of overt references to traditional R&B gods — Sam Cooke, James Brown, Marvin Gaye — and his sound has always reflected that reverence for classics.
At times this has worked to his detriment. His first mixtape, Taste of Chicago, while an enjoyable piece of soul showcasing his smooth, crooning voice, sounded ill-fatedly bound to be the background music for overzealous, virginal high school boys dropping $1.99 clearance rose flower pedals over their extra-long twin bed in an attempt to convince their apprehensive, younger, girlfriends that this is finally the “right time.” There’s even the obligatory “Sexual Healing” cover. Those predecessors so prevalent on his earlier works seemed to box him in as he held them so tightly.
Whether by personal growth or external pressure, BJ has branched out towards the contemporary. BJ’s feature on rapper Schoolboy Q’s track “Studio” was undoubtedly his major break into the public lexicon. Still, he was by no means unknown prior, lending his voice to standout releases like Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap and Ab-Soul’s Control System. His most recent full release, The M.A.F.E. Project, offered samples from Kanye West’s futuristic album Yeezus and a rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Strawberry Bubblegum.” It’s an acknowledgement that, for better or worse, pop-inspired bass and synths are the majority of R&B tracks in 2016, not jazz bands and orchestral sounds.
In My Mind, BJ’s major-label debut, finds the artist merging his past and present, trying not to compromise either. He shows impressive growth both vocally and sonically, likely a result of the talented crowd he’s associated himself with, and there’s an obvious tinge of tradition here. But there’s an equally poignant modern element that helps keep this album from feeling like any other nostalgic work of soul.
Opening the album on “Intro,” BJ jokes “I love God, but I also love mob movies.” It’s a fitting introduction to In My Mind, which pulls influence from both. “Man Down,” which leans closer to mob movies, both on account of the berretta-like beat and lyrics like “you can’t fuck with me and my n****s,” is probably the closest BJ will come to the radio. It’s a forward-moving track that brings an energy that was sometimes absent from his earlier releases. On the other hand, there’s no lack of slow piano-ballad sermons on this debut. “Shine,” Falling On My Face,” and “Jeremiah/World Needs More Love,” all lean on his love for God. On the latter, he makes this unquestionably clear: “Just in case you were wondering what Jeremiah I’m speaking of, not the singer but the prophet from the bible.”
The best moments of this album come when BJ can bring both of these elements together. “Church,” featuring Chance the Rapper and Buddy, sees him contemplating that line between church and sin. “She say she wanna drink, do drugs and have sex tonight / But I got church in the morning,” he sings. He delivers the lines playfully, like he knows what he wants but also what he needs. Impressively, he holds his own with Chance, who has a habit of taking center stage on a number of his guest appearances.
The Kendrick collaboration, “The New Cupid,” is another highlight that marries new and old, and again involves BJ looking at his moral compass — “Cupid’s too busy in the club” he notes. The interplay between Kendrick and BJ is powerful, with both seeming to guide each other, like friendly musicians in a jazz band.
BJ has been often compared to D’Angelo, on account of similarities in his voice and tributes (both subtle references and entire album covers) that BJ has made to the artist. Indeed, BJ seems like the natural succession from D’Angelo’s ’90s neo-soul towards a more rap-heavy modern scene. BJ doesn’t have the power, though, that D’Angelo’s voice does, and the more old-fashioned, vocal second half of In My Mind could turn off listeners that were initially held by the tempo of the opening tracks.
Still, In My Mind is a solid attempt at bridging BJ’s multiple worlds. It neither succumbs totally to pop-pressure, nor holds too completely to tradition.