BJ the Chicago Kid is homesick—and apparently hungry, too. Calling from a tour stop in Houston, the R&B singer, born Bryan James Sledge, talks eagerly about his favorite South Side restaurants, which he’s missed since he moved to Los Angeles in 2003 to pursue music full-time. “One of my favorite places just burned down,” he says. “Home of the Hoagy on 111th. I call it ‘hood good.’ It’s hood food, but everybody knows it’s the best. Harold’s, Uncle Remus, JJ Fish, Shark’s—that’s all hood good.”
A native of Brainerd, a neighborhood on the Far South Side, the 30-year-old is part of a growing generation of artists reclaiming R&B from the sultry singers of the ’90s by way of Motown hooks and frank, vulnerable lyrics. It’s a sound that drives his first album, In My Mind (Motown, February 19), from the biblical breakup anthem “Jeremiah” to the lead single “Church,” which opens with “She says she wanna drink, do drugs, and have sex tonight / But I got church in the morning.”
Sledge says he picked up his choirboy-from-the-hood aesthetic in Chicago, where “you’d be outside bouncing the basketball and hear somebody playing Al Green in the alley.” He was raised in a working-class household—his mother an auto claims adjuster, his father a bouncer and medical supply worker—on a block he describes as tight-knit but troubled.
“Where I grew up, it was manicured lawns, but I still had homies that was found in trunks,” he says. As a teen, Sledge fell in with a rough crowd (“A lot of times, you ain’t know what your friends did until they’re already your friends”) but says that his church, Prayer Band Pentecostal Church, kept him afloat. “The church gives you a conscience. No matter what I was doing or how deep I was doing it, it kept my eyes open.”
The self-taught drummer and pianist got his break when producer and family friend Kevin Randolph read a poem Sledge had written for a crush. He encouraged Sledge to write songs and helped him book studio gigs with Ramsey Lewis and Dave Hollister. “I just locked in,” says Sledge, who went on to record with such hip-hop heavyweights as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper. Last year, “Studio,” the song he collaborated on with Schoolboy Q, earned him a Grammy nomination.
Despite his growing success, Sledge is still learning to navigate the cutthroat music industry. It’s a world he says can be as hardscrabble as his block in Brainerd. “You have to understand when to walk, when to talk, and when to go aggressive.” He pauses. “But you can also make your own rules.”