Some projects spend so much time in gestation they take on a life of their own. BJ the Chicago Kid (Bryan James Sledge) has been making music for a long time, and In My Mind is his major label debut. Since 2001, he’s worked with Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Dr Dre (as well as many others), but Sledge has largely stayed in the shadows, occupying himself by singing features on hip-hop songs, using his distinctive voice to imbue them with a vintage appeal. In My Mind is his shot at entering the mainstream, and becoming a successful artist in his own right, and it’s certainly an audacious one.
At 62 minutes and 15 tracks, In My Mind has no interest in restraint. Featuring an impressive roster of guests including Big K.R.I.T., and previous collaborators Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, Sledge is seemingly making the most of his many years of experience and contacts, and condensing it into one record. It’s a stunningly confident work, with deep themes and lush instrumentals, all anchored around Sledge’s remarkably unique voice.
Lead single Church sets the tone for the record. It’s funny and playful, whilst confronting the age-old theme of belief in the face of temptation. Over laid back guitars and sweetly plucked strings, Sledge sings “she wanna drink, do drugs and have sex tonight / but I got church in the morning”. This battle between one’s real and idealised selves is all over the album, like in The Resume. Sledge attempts to seduce a woman using the metaphor of being dedicated to a job: “put in overtime, even when it hurts”. The duality of sensuality and banality is poignant, even as he sings in an overtly sexual manner.
The most powerful song is Wait Til the Morning, as Sledge implores his mistress not to reveal their affair to his wife, so he can enjoy one last night of peace before suffering the consequences. The songs has a distinct humanity and empathy for its protagonist, in spite of his flaws, and the yearning and earnestness in Sledge’s voice as he sings “please don’t tell her tonight” is palpable. The outro in which Isa sings “just don’t lie to me” then spins the song around, to focus on those his actions have hurt. Falling on my Face, with a piano and vocal melody that recalls I Can’t Make You Love Me, is the album’s humble, emotional climax. Sledge sings “I’m just a man / who falls on his face”, and the emotion of the previous 13 songs is audible in Sledge’s amazing, subtle performance.
In My Mind is not perfect. It’s 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, but given the amount of material Sledge must have amassed over his years in music, it’s a forgivable offense. Some of the instrumentals are overly similar, but each stands out on its own, recalling the sounds of soul and R&B throughout history. In My Mind is staggering, especially since it’s the first major album release of Sledge’s long career. Filled with lush sounds, deep themes, and Sledge’s voice as its beating heart, the album is a triumph.