Bryan James Sledge has never busted a rhyme on record before, but he probably has your favorite rapper on speed dial.
A born-and-raised veteran of the Windy City's famed R&B circuit, the singer known as BJ the Chicago Kid has spent the past decade collaborating with a roll call of modern hip-hop monoliths. From his initial big break—a 2006 feature on Kanye West's Mission: Impossible III theme—to recent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Anderson Paak, the gospel-tinged sounds that permeate Sledge's world have expanded well beyond his hometown.
But for the 31-year-old, the decade between moving to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams and independently releasing his first solo effort—2012's critically hailed Pineapple Now-Laters—hasn't been a leisurely stroll through a personal trophy room as much as a steady grind.
"It's kinda like The Little Engine That Could, you know," Sledge says while preparing for a sold-out show in New York. "All of those songs were steps in the stairs."
A son of church choir directors, Sledge left Chicago for Los Angeles at age 19. Upon his arrival, he worked as a backup singer for gospel duo Mary Mary, eventually finding his way onto Stevie Wonder's 2005 album A Time to Love. Over the next seven years, Sledge recorded and released three mixtapes and appeared on more than 25 singles for other artists, before signing to Motown and prepping his breakthrough, this year's In My Mind.
In conversation, there is a pleasant earnestness to the way Sledge relates his success story, and that tender-hearted introspection extends to In My Mind. A uniquely powerful blend of classic Stax soul and neo-R&B, the album straddles generations of sounds without ever feeling forced. Although it features guest appearances from Lamar, Chance and Big K.R.I.T., it's Sledge's soft vocals that draw you in, and his openness keeps you listening. On songs like "Church," he relays the internal struggle between religious salvation and earthly temptation—a classic soul-music dichotomy—when going to church in the morning leads to a night of drugs and women. He is unfailingly honest throughout. Shoot, on the record's intro track, he even declares his fear of spider webs.
In a music world brimming with wannabes, it is Sledge's authenticity that has drawn high-level rappers to his doorstep. But it's also made him feel like an outsider.
"I understand there are very few like me who kinda chill, and love the music and are here for the music," he says. "And it can be hard. There's a lot of people who are caught up in the life—the chains, the blunts, the whole nine. I feel like, if you like something, you should just like it—not because it's a cool thing to have as an accessory to being a rapper.
"Music, because it's a feeling and not something you can see, you have the ability to tell if it's real or not, or if somebody's a good-ass actor, you know?" he continues, chuckling. "We're all inspired by someone, but that inspiration should always shine in your own light."
As Sledge continues on his first worldwide solo tour, hitting Portland before spending several weeks in Europe, he has much hope for the future—for himself, and for friends like Lamar, Chance and Paak. Still, at the end of the day, popularity and sales are the least of their concerns, he says.
"We just want to make better music than we did yesterday, man," he says. "I think that's simply what it is."
SEE IT: BJ the Chicago Kid plays Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Ave., with Elhae, on Thursday, July 28. 9 pm. $18. All ages.