In The Eyes of BJ the Chicago Kid, He and Ro James Have Changed the Touring Game [INTERVIEW]
To my left, a brown-skinned woman with bobbed box braids lost her mind and sight of her boyfriend as BJ the Chicago Kid and Ro James took to New York City’s Bowery Ballroom stage with their rendition of Jodeci’s “Come and Talk to Me.” The two crooners were careful not to bulldoze each other with their powerful runs as they promenaded back and forth across the small platform. “We came together to give you something no motherfuckers are really trying to do. We tryna give you special moments,” BJ said of their joint tour, christening their fifth stop at the song’s conclusion.
Dubbed “The R&B Tour,” a double entendre signifying both the artists’ names and genre, Ro and BJ’s nine-city spectacle came to a close on Sunday, May 27th in Los Angeles. I caught up with BJ nearly a week after seeing him in New York, two days before his last show.
Last year, BJ’s major label debut, In My Mind, garnered a Best R&B Album nod from the Recording Academy. When I ask the Motown signee what he wants listeners to gain from it, he said, “Honestly, I really don’t care how they listen to it as long as they listen to it. Whatever is your magnetic way of being attracted to the music, let it be.” Through his extensive catalogue of mixtapes, albums, and features, BJ has played with genres —R&B of course, but also soul, gospel, and rap. I was pulled into the world of BJ the Chicago Kid by his bouncy harmonies on Chance the Rapper’s 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap and serious singing on Top Dawg Entertainment tracks like “Kush & Corinthians” with Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar and the Grammy nominated track “Studio” with ScHoolboy Q.
Ro James ––who has earned a Grammy nomination of his own for the single “Permission,” a sultry take on sexual consent–– says BJ’s “grind” and “hustle” is what inspired him. “I feel like, BJ has been one of those brothers that I’ve never had, that encouraged me. And I would encourage him, at the same time,” Ro said in an interview last year.
Over the phone, BJ is almost indigent when I encourage him to expound upon his opening decree in NYC, to say more about what he and Ro are doing that “motherfuckers” aren’t. Joint tours aren’t a particularly novel undertaking. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have taken the world by storm again with the reincarnation of On the Run. In 2014, Lil Wayne and Drake went head to head across the US. And even if we’re thinking strictly R&B, 2015 saw Chris Brown and Trey Songz co-headline the Between the Sheets Tour, then Mary J. Blige and Maxwell toured together internationally the next year.
“Show me two artists that have done what we’ve done,” BJ said. “Two R&B artists of the same caliber? Like, nobody’s doing it, nobody is thinking to do [it]. So it’s kind of obvious, the way it stands out.”
It is true, though, that Ro and BJ exist on a different plane than Jay and Bey, than Chris and Trigga. Neither Ro nor BJ have headlined arena tours yet, but rather shows at more intimate venues. For this series of intimate shows, BJ, Ro, and their teams have worked to make sure their run was as cohesive as possible, from recording “Come and Talk to Me” and it’s accompanying video with the tour in mind, to combining their separate bands into one captivating unit.
For BJ, preparing a live performance is like preparing a meal.
“It’s almost like cooking,” he says. “ When you cook for yourself, you’re cooking for your pallet. When you’re cooking for others, you cook for their pallet… You’re more or less catering to their vision.”
As BJ and Ro ping-ponged energy and spotlight back and forth in New York, both when they shared the stage and when they tagged in and out, it was clear that there was no sense of competition, no opener nor closer, no single star. They only performed solo for a few songs at a time. Each artist took on the same number of costume changes (several) and donned equally, if differently, showy gear. BJ looked ready for war with bulky front-packs and streetwear, whereas Ro went for flash, at one point suited in a pastel green patent leather trench coat and black liquid-looking patent leather pants.
And fans deliquesced like the look of Ro’s slacks. BJ and Ro commanded the audience, BJ with his unadulterated voice and familiar covers of Usher hits (“Nice and Slow,” “Superstar,” and “Lovers and Friends”); Ro with his rolling hips and impassioned storytelling of fallen angels and first cars. BJ acted as the maestro of a giant swag surf in the middle of the show. A dark-skinned woman towering over me sobbed as it came to a close. At another show, one fan had Ro and BJ autograph her arm, BJ explained. Then, she turned their signatures into a tattoo.
BJ, who’s worked with a bevy of stars— from Kanye West, to Diddy, and Jill Scott –– sees The R&B Tour as a new realm of influence.
“Nobody does a song together to announce a tour. ‘Come and Talk To Me’— we stamped that literally for the tour, we shot the video for the tour. Nobody puts that much time and details into layers of awareness for a tour. We actually took our time with everything we could do— with the merch, even with combining our sets, we combined our bands, we combined our teams, our booking agencies which had to work together. We’ve really started something that I feel like is going to be amazing for years to come,” BJ said matter-of-factly. “You probably will see an ‘R&B’ tour every year, maybe not with Ro & BJ, but we have started something that you’ll see every year.”
There is an undeniable precedent for joint tours and joint musical projects as the precursor to those tours (think Jay-Z’s runs with Kanye West, Coldplay, and Justin Timberlake, or even Snoop Dogg or Wiz Khalifa’s Mac and Devin Go to High School film, soundtrack, and The High Road tour that followed). While BJ may be right in that such a precedent is weaker when strictly R&B artists are considered, it’s hard to feel like he and Ro have started something so much as put an soulful, intentional, and enjoyable spin on an existing model.
“If you loved this show, you have to love the next,” BJ asserted. “Everything ups the anticipation, and ups the ante for the next. That’s what keeps you held on as a fan, if you begin to get bored then you definitely move on to the next artist. I’m not gonna cut off the way you love me.”