BJ the Chicago Kid 1123
BJ the Chicago Kid has spent his career straddling the line between sideman and star attraction. The Chicago crooner guested on singles from Kanye West and Schoolboy Q and recorded with many of the most distinguished artists of his generation—Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Solange among them, in addition to Dr. Dre, Freddie Gibbs, Vic Mensa, A$AP Rocky, Lil Durk, and dozens more. He performed at Barack Obama’s 2017 farewell address and earned three Grammy nominations for his 2016 Motown debut, In My Mind. Yet for all that exposure, he still hasn’t had a charting single of his own.
It seems the industry loves BJ the Chicago Kid’s voice but doesn’t have much of an opinion one way or the other about him as an artist. For all his obvious talent, he’s a deceptively hard sell. He doesn’t have the voice-of-his-generation allure of Khalid or the tortured-poet mystique of Frank Ocean. He idolizes artists like Marvin Gaye and D’Angelo, complicated figures who carry an aura of importance, but his own records are more in the lineage of Musiq Soulchild and Dwele, singers with great voices and pleasant dispositions but considerably humbler ambitions. The marketplace never quite knows what to do with acts like that.
It’s to his advantage that BJ never tries to be anything that he’s not. His fetching sophomore album for Motown, , doubles down on the laid-back, creature-comfort vibe of In My Mind. The Anderson .Paak feature “Feel the Vibe” kicks off the record on an especially charming note, welcoming the listener to a family gathering filled with music, spirited conversation, and generous spreads of soul food (“Don’t forget the cornbread”). From there, nearly every track offers some combination of good times, good drink, good company, and good sex.
The closest the record comes to conflict is when BJ wonders whether things are too comfortable. “Real men get scared sometimes because it’s too good,” he laments on the Donny Hathaway-esque relationship study “Too Good.” The album’s other great dilemma: On “Champagne,” a spontaneous roll in the hay threatens to make him late for a pre-existing commitment—though he doesn’t make those plans sound especially important anyway. BJ has never been one to manufacture high stakes.
Like all of neo soul’s greats, BJ seamlessly blurs R&B’s past and present, but 1123 tends to sidestep the most obvious tropes, both modern and retro. Save for its Rick Ross verse, the bumping Marvin Gaye update “Playa’s Ball” sounds like it could have been recorded at any point over the last quarter century. In its final stretch, though, 1123 does toss out a few of-the-moment tracks that radio might be able to work with. The hater-smiting “Worryin’ Bout Me” dabbles in trap, with a verse from Offset, and “Reach” casts BJ opposite some contemporary house from Dutch DJ Afrojack.
The most conspicuous departure is “Rather Be With You,” the album’s Khalid moment: a big, sappy ballad that wallows in the artificial drama that BJ otherwise almost pointedly resists. It’s the one moment on 1123 where the production upstages BJ’s voice, and the one moment where he sounds anything less than completely comfortable. When a singer proves this good at small statements, there’s no need to try to force a grand one.