THESE DAYS it feels like the world is in complete chaos. Every week there’s a new catastrophic death toll, police shooting, rape, or murder.
Following the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last month, listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” became a therapeutic ritual for me. Withstanding the test of time, the song has the ability to relate to listeners’ emotions while begging for answers and grieving the world’s suffering. Love was Gaye’s legacy. About two weeks after the tragedy, a posthumous duet featuring BJ the Chicago Kid was released to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Gaye’s legendary song.
“That’s one of my favorite things in life right now,” says BJ. “I had to go step outside for a second and just absorb the moment that I’ll be singing parts of this song for a final cut, you know? [laughs] I had to remove myself as a fan and become an artist for a second because... his music humbles you, man.”
BJ the Chicago Kid—born Bryan James Sledge—might be a new star, but he’s an old soul. Since releasing his debut mixtape A Taste of Chicago in 2009, BJ’s beautiful baby-making music has brought a classic sound into a new age of R&B. Since then he’s continued to flourish, writing for more-established artists, traveling, putting out his widely appreciated Pineapple Now-Laters LP, and collaborating with the likes of Schoolboy Q, Kehlani, Ab-Soul, and Freddie Gibbs. Now BJ’s got a home at Hitsville, USA—AKA a little company called Motown Records—where he debuted In My Mind, his first major label release, last February.
The posthumous duet with Gaye is definitely a milestone in BJ’s career, a lasting symbol of his significant contribution to R&B. It’s far from dead, folks. In fact, In My Mind is perhaps the most timeless R&B album I’ve heard in years. BJ pours raw emotion into each soulful ode, grappling with themes of love, lust, infidelity, passion, dealing with failure, and balancing spirituality. The record’s highlights are simultaneously God-fearing and seductive tracks like “The Resume” featuring Big K.R.I.T., “The New Cupid,” and “Church,” which offer guest appearances from hip-hop stars Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.
One of the most refreshing tracks on the album is “Woman’s World,” for obvious reasons. The song’s chorus is the phrase “This is a woman’s world,” challenging the notion that men run the show while channeling James Brown’s 1966 hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
“We wanted to take that which is being ignored and make that be understood,” BJ says. “I think it’s incredible because we’re not doing much different—we’re doing something different from what James Brown did—but not much different. He said, ‘This is a man’s world,’ and a lot of people put a period right there but it’s really just a comma. He says, ‘but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl.’ So we took the second half and just made that the majority of our song.”
Now that he’s embarking on an international tour, BJ says the pressure to honor the Motown legacy doesn’t overwhelm him.
“I feel like a lot of things we’re fighting for, and the things that we’re building, and the things that we’re walking forth into, I think we’re doing it and making a new path for another artist,” he says. “I think this is history remaking and rewriting time. And knowing that and understanding that... I feel like I wanna be the one to be read about, more than the one that’s doing the reading.”