Whether the people in the Varsity Theatre on Sunday evening went to church or not was no matter – BJ the Chicago Kid made sure he delivered a vocal performance so full of heart and gratitude for life that it seemed akin to the most impassioned gospel service. What a service it was.
The lively evening started off with life-affirming music from opening acts Kamauu and Rayana Jay. Kamauu made it a priority to get the crowd full of optimism, asking them to love one another and shout “yebo” – the Zulu term for yes and a beacon for positivity. It helped that his act, a crossover of singing and rapping in an age where contemporary artists like Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper who follow in this vein break through to the mainstream, was spectacularly performed. Afterwards, Rayana Jay kept a lowkey profile as she beautifully crooned her way through songs about lovers and heartbreak. The emotional aura in the room at this point was palpable.
And then BJ took the stage. Bryan James Sledge, known by his previously mentioned alias, began his performance in support of his release 1123, distributed earlier this year. On opening song “Feel the Vibe,” a hard-hitting verse from equally fantastic artist Anderson .Paak blared through the Varsity speakers. From that point on, BJ let his own vocals do the talking. Backed by a DJ, drummer and keyboardist, he reached octaves that many singers dare attempt to reach – and fail altogether – but he blissfully glided through them like few a live artist I have ever seen. Knowing his extensive list of features on songs throughout the decade but unaccustomed to his personal discography, it was inspiring to hear his performance on stage, full of life and vibrant, to a crowd that matched his soul word for word.
BJ went on to sing more tracks from 1123, namely fan favorites “Champagne,” “Church” and “Time Today,” before he delved into his mixtapes and pulled out songs for the true fans in the room. He heaped gratitude on the Varsity crowd for coming to his show, stating that he is not essentially what is considered mainstream in the eyes of music today and that coming to the show indicated that everyone in the room had a very respectable taste in music. Even further was a callback to his uprising in Chicago, playing songs that represent the very best of the Windy City and had everybody in the room singing. “Slow Jamz,” a song from Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout, was notable in the fact that BJ almost served as a protégé to Kanye himself – one of ‘Ye’s earlier tracks, “Impossible,” featured BJ in the runtime and helped him to make a name for himself outside of Chicago city lines.
By the end of the concert, BJ was addressing the crowd behind a sparse piano accompaniment, saying how he almost did not have the will to tour this year due to a lot of grief and personal hardships back home. But he insisted that the fans and the love that he receives night in and night out help him to keep trekking on and delivering incredible performances.
It may have been a lowkey sort of Sunday evening in Baton Rouge, but BJ the Chicago Kid made sure that everything he gave on the Varsity Theatre stage was 100 percent himself: no fakeness, no superficiality, no distractions. Just a man, his mic, his backing band, and enough spiritual gratitude and thankfulness for life to reach across the state line. Never has so much joy poured from such a minute handful of voices.