There is a unique burden that comes with the title of being a Rhythm & Blues artist. The genre itself was born out of equal parts brilliance and struggle. A genealogical descendent Work Songs sung by slaves, Spirituals, and the Blues, R&B helped lay the foundation for what would become much of American music, and all of its offspring. Carrying the mantle of an R&B artist isn’t an easy torch to carry, but one that should be carried with pride. But, as a result of the commodification and commercialization of music, R&B, as a genre, has become pigeonholed into a position of mainstream irrelevance – often seen as a lesser than form of music.
In a music world where derivative forms of R&B have taken precedence over traditional forms of R&B, there are few torchbearers who are willing to bear the label of being an R&B artist. Two in particular – Ro James and BJ The Chicago Kid – have taken that mantle and tried to add the longstanding tradition of R&B music. Ro James, 31, was born in Germany, and spent the much of early years in New York, California, and Oklahoma – as his father was in the military. Musically, James is equally influenced by his formative years in the church as he is by the music of his time – Whitney Houston, Keith Sweat, and Ginuwine. James is also an avid Prince fan, which makes sense. James' aunt, Rosie Gaines, is a former background singer for Prince and introduced him to much of his music. Then, there’s BJ The Chicago Kid, 33, a native of Chicago. Born to choir directors, BJ’s sound and connection to black church music is undeniable. BJ spent the early part of his career doing a variety of things ranging from singing background for Mary Mary, to writing for Lalah Hathaway, and collaborating with everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West to Glenn Lewis and Kindred The Family Soul.
In preparation for a forthcoming album and EP from BJ The Chicago Kid and Ro James, respectively, the two soul singers combined together for The R&B Tour – a nine city tour spanning both coasts. On Monday, May 21st, The R&B Tour paid a visit to Philadelphia’s Underground Arts. Opening the night to the sound of much applause, Ro James - dressed in a leather Chicago White Sox Jersey, and BJ The Chicago Kid - dressed in a Michael Jordan Chicago White Sox Jersey - took the stage singing their recently released cover of Jodeci’s Come And Talk To Me– a fitting opener for the theme of the tour.
Opting for a balanced approach, neither artist acted as the headliner in a traditional sense, with each artist rotating and sharing the stage. After finishing Come And Talk To Me – BJ The Chicago Kid took the stage, solo, performing a cover of Luther Vandros’ Never Too Much, seamlessly transitioning into BJ The Chicago Kid’s Love Inside, then fan favorite – Church, a song that speaks to BJ’s personal convictions conflicted with the power of seduction. After BJ’s first set, the Ro James took the stage, performing a cover of Biggie’s Money, Hoes, and Clothes, then transitioning into his song, Already Knew That. It's evident - both BJ The Chicago Kid and Ro James have all of the tools any fan would want to see in their talented, male-R&B vocalists: strong falsettos, sensual lyrics, and powerful lower registers.
The R&B Tour is equally a tribute to R&B and a peak into what the future of R&B can sound like. Sharing the stage, Ro James and BJ The Chicago Kid ran down a list of classic R&B songs from their childhoods – from Usher’s Nice and Slow to Ginuwine’s Pony to Musiq Soulchild’s Love. BJ The Chicago even did a chilling acapella rendition of Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing – showing the singer’s virtuosic talent. Closing out the night, BJ The Chicago Kid finished with what may his most popular song Turning Me Up, mergeing it with Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Can’t Hide Love.