Seven years after his landmark Ghetto Retro, the Bay's hip-hop soul phenom returns with a new EP
MUSIC One day in November 2004, my then-girlfriend returned to our Oakland apartment all excited. "I just heard this on KMEL," she said. She handed me a CD, Baby Jaymes, Ghetto Retro (Underground Soul), while she unwrapped the included Ghetto Retro EP and cued up "Nice Girl." "He sounds like Prince," she enthused—we were Prince geeks—"but he's from East Oakland!"
Something in the way the vocals were layered, the tasty guitar and bass details under aloof keyboards, and the idiosyncratic, non-pimp, non-player personality that disclosed itself seemed to justify the comparison, particularly as we moved on to the LP. The hidden track "Ev'ry Nuance," for example, could be a Lovesexy outtake, even as its more lo-fi aesthetic seemed to allude knowingly to 1999-era bootlegs.
Comparisons to Prince would be made in nearly every review of Ghetto Retro, though the insistence was a little misleading. While Prince is definitely an influence, BJ — as he's known — isn't especially well-versed in the Purple One's catalog. Some of the resemblance stems from the common influence of 1960s and '70s soul; Motown, particularly Smokey Robinson, and Stax loom much larger for Baby Jaymes, and in many ways, the similarly pint-sized singer is the anti-Prince, possessing no conventional technical musical ability, depending on collaborators to translate the melodies and arrangements he hears in his head.
In 2007, I had the experience of watching him cajole a string trio from blank incomprehension into a soaring, unscripted overdub reminiscent of a Paul Riser classic. Yet I've also seen the comparatively simple matter of a guitar overdub founder for want of a common vocabulary.
"It's all about energy to me," BJ says, "but I can't always articulate it in a way that musicians understand. But if I articulate it emotionally they might be like, yes! and we're there. I used to knock myself out because I can't play, but that's part of my gift. I've gotten to the place where I'm ok with that."
The other major difference is the difference between Minneapolis and East Oakland, for while Prince has profoundly influenced hip-hop, he's never known what to do with it, whereas it's second nature to BJ, hailing from the notorious Rollin' 100s (99th and MacArthur, to be exact).
Much of Ghetto Retro is built on heavily manipulated samples, augmented with instruments, and though he's the furthest thing from a thug — I've never heard him cuss, though I have heard him say "my goodness" and even "golly"—Baby Jaymes sounds entirely natural with Turf Talk on his 2008 single "The Bizness" or The Jacka on his new EP, Whatever Happened to Baby Jaymes?, released late last year on Hiero-imprint Clear Label Records.
The EP's title, BJ admits, was the brainchild of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics member and Clear Label head Tajai Massey, both punning off the Bette Davis film and nodding to the seven-year wait since Ghetto Retro. BJ initially resisted.
"I disappeared," he admits. "But I don't want people to think I wasn't doing anything."
"I was bummed out with the artist thing," he continues. "People remember me — which is a good thing. But I couldn't imagine life not having anonymity. To this day I can't go anywhere in the Town without seeing at least one person that knows me. It can be overwhelming."
BJ's local profile, elevated by airplay on KMEL, national press from Fader and XLR8R, and even a 2005 GOLDIE, was complicated by the chronic difficulty of making money as a Bay Area urban artist. In the mid-'00s, besides longstanding major label distinterest, Bay Area independent artists suddenly saw their financial foundations crumble with the decline of CD sales.