BJ the Chicago Kid's EP of D'Angelo covers last month wasn't a dramatic reimagining of the material; there was no attempt to update the performances to meet 2016 expectations. Save for a few added lyrics, BJ just stayed true to the sound of Voodoo, so much so that the casual listener could easily mistake his renditions as alternative takes from those Electric Lady Studios sessions. As it turns out, it was an omen for what was to follow. That gall, to go note for note and timbre for timbre with one of the most respected soul musicians of our era? And to not come up short? The Chicago Kid was confident, and it seems In My Mind is the justification.
There are 15 years between Bryan James Sledge's first writing placement (Dave Hollister's "For You") and this, his major label debut on Motown. In the time between, he's become the go-to guy for injecting a little soul into rap records, worked with everyone from Dre to Kanye to Kendrick and released the independent album Pineapple Now-Laters. He was building a foundation for greatness.
In My Mind is unmistakably a soul album, one that marries church teachings and mainstream appeal, as much Jagged Edge as Mary Mary. That pious influence is most evident on the dynamically unrestrained "Jeremiah" and single "Church," featuring Buddy & Chance the Rapper. Of course, conflict being the root to the human condition, much of the album strays from Sunday morning sensibilities: "Wait Til the Morning" is a desperate plea to his wife's best friend to not reveal his indiscretions (the spouse, well performed by Isa the song's conclusion, is no fool); "The Resume," a sexy vocoder-powered application for a particular position, is a harmonic masterpiece of stacked vocals, synths and rotating organs.
Raphael Saadiq's fans may be surprised to see "Oh Girl" reappear as "The New Cupid," featuring Kendrick Lamar detailing his parking lot pimping/street harassment routine (K-Dot's feature seems a little phoned in, but Hova's verse on Saadiq's original was also uncharacteristically subpar). With redemption perhaps in mind, BJ follows with "Woman's World," a piano- and strings-backed examination of global affairs. It's over that combination of instrumentation that the Chicago Kid's soul is best bared, as evidenced on the tracks "Falling on My Face" and "Shine," a wedding playlist-ready ode to partnership.
Despite the moniker, BJ joined the musical migration to Los Angeles a few years back, but "Home" is an understated acknowledgment of his namesake that notably concludes with the line, "Sing this song like it's my last, 'cause my ass may not make it back." For all the fuss that's been made about Toronto as the new music epicentre, Chicago is producing some of the most engrossing artists in rap and R&B, all of whom seem to exhibit strong complicated relationships with a city in crisis. One wonders if it's possible for our ambassadors to celebrate the 6ix while shining a light on that city's own shortcomings.
A few big name features aside, In My Mind is mostly a collaboration between skilled session musicians and lesser-known producers who can play, like Cornelio Austin, Lamar Edwards, Jairus "JMO" Mozee and Da Internz, while BJ's Grammy-nominated brother Aaron Sledge shares composer credits on the majority of the album. As many drums were mic'd as were programmed here, with songs like "Inside Me" deftly blending both approaches to modern soul. "Turnin' Me Up" returns to the Michael Archer vibe of January's EP, with a video harkening to a time when recording budgets allowed for everyone to hole up in large studios for extended periods of time.
For an artist who's made a career off of guest features, BJ the Chicago Kid kept the additional personnel to a select few, and still outshines all involved. In My Mind is the proof that his ascension is hardly luck, but rather the result of a 15-year grind and a tremendous work ethic. In an industry where the idea of a meritocracy is as foreign as a retirement plan, Bryan James has achieved the near impossible. In My Mind is the most earnest soul album in years. (Motown/Universal)