Despite not releasing a project since his 2012 full-length debut, Pineapple Now-Laters, BJ the Chicago Kid’s stature has risen consistently over the past four years thanks to impressive features on cuts from the hip-hop elite. Now that it’s finally time for the Windy City vocalist to package a new bunch of tunes under his own name, some of those big names stepped up to take over the feature role — everyone from Big K.R.I.T. to Chance the Rapper to Kendrick Lamar guest on In My Mind. Though those artists’ styles vary pretty widely, BJ’s swoon-worthy voice ties everything together, but unfortunately sometimes to the detriment of the album as a whole.
Calling BJ a soul singer is, in some sense of the word, accurate. He has one of the smoothest, most impassioned voices in the business and carries the weight of the soul tradition. However, his subject is never quite as simple as one might assume based on that genre tag. “She say she wanna drink, have sex, and do drugs tonight/ But I’ve got church in the morning,” he sings on “Church” (which gets an assist from Chance). He’s not so virtuous as to completely reject the temptation. Elsewhere, on the deliriously sultry “Love Inside”, the double entendres aren’t too difficult to pick apart: “I want you to feel the love I have inside me/ Inside you tonight.” (Maybe it’s just the Shakespeare classes in my past that make me hear “fellate” sometimes when he’s repeating “feel it,” or maybe there’s even another sexy play on words — dude’s name is BJ, after all.)
Bringing that same soulful, powerful voice to both “Church” and “Love Inside” is a powerful choice. BJ brings the same emotional, spiritual intensity to both the pews and the bedroom, which is exactly why he’s become such an in-demand collaborator. However, stringing the songs together can cause a bit too much overlap, his voice so recognizable and smooth that it can be hard to pick the songs apart. That’s not a bad thing, inherently, but here the tempos, production choices, and delivery lack the minor variations that would make the album exciting rather than merely pleasant.
That should be where the collaborators step in, shaking everything up, but some of those inclusions are sunk too deep in sticky beats and satin hooks to push any variety. A particularly head-scratching example is “Resume” on which Big K.R.I.T., a truly dynamic rapper, is relegated to a spoken-word intro to what ultimately feels as much like a Flight of the Conchords track as it does a sexy slow-jam. “I wanna work that body like it’s a nine-to-five,” BJ not so subtly offers. “I need a job/ Can you hire me?” The finger-snaps and cheesy synth squiggles don’t add much subtlety to that wordplay.
Yet there are points on In My Mind where BJ, both on his own and with guests, reaches a sublime mixture of soul and sensuality. “Love Inside” is one of those, a hook that digs right into the pleasure center of your brain. “The New Cupid” is another; BJ and Kendrick detail a story in which cupid is busy at the club, so BJ has to bring love to the world instead — and with the Raphael Saadiq sample, Kendrick’s blazy rasps about the Commodores and chasing mini-skirts, and more silky coos from BJ, you’ll absolutely believe he’d make a fitting replacement. “Man Down”, meanwhile, acts as the most exciting change of pace, a smoldering beat and staccato repetitions of the title giving a darker tone to BJ’s vocals.
In My Mind is BJ’s first record since signing to Motown. He does a great service to the label’s storied history in showing the breadth and scope of R&B, but the flashes of excitement are too tempting to deny when placed alongside the more soulful tracks. The two halves feel out of balance here. Had they been more equally matched, In My Mind could’ve reached another stratosphere.
Essential Tracks: “Love Inside”, “The New Cupid”, and “Man Down”