Seven years after his landmark Ghetto Retro, the Bay's hip-hop soul phenom returns with a new EP
"You have to preserve your mystique," he says, "but you don't have money to be that guy all the time. I might really be on the bus and you see me on the bus and it just kills my whole thing for you. So I decided I just wanted to make music, not make music to be famous."
Instead BJ moved to L.A. to pursue licensing deals in movies and TV. Even before Ghetto Retro, he'd already tapped into Hollywood money, writing a song ("Without a Daddy" by Touché) that appears in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999). (His own version appears on Ghetto Retro as "Black Girl/White Girl.") Since relocating, he's racked up an oddball assortment of screen credits, from a few seconds of music in a Nicole Kidman vehicle (2007's The Invasion) to production work on Fox's intro to the 2008-09 NFC Championship broadcast (apparently Cleatus the Robot's first foray into hip-hop).
More recently NCIS used a snippet "so small and incidental, you can barely hear it," but this brings in incomparably more money than dropping a Bay Area hip-hop soul classic. Essentially BJ makes the bulk of his modest income off five song placements and would like to bring that number up to around 40 reliable ones, which he estimates would bring in a comfortable enough existence to fulfill his artistic ambitions.
THE PROVERBIAL RETURN
For, despite his earlier discomfort, Baby Jaymes's artistic ambitions remain, and Tajai was able to induce him to sign to Clear Label to record a new album, for which the seven-song Whatever Happened is simply a calling card. Still, after so long a hiatus, the EP is a joy to hear. I'd wondered if BJ and long-time collaborator, producer Marc Garvey, would shy away from the sound they'd crafted in favor of something more obviously commercial, but instead they've dug deeper, returning to the samples-plus-hip-hop-drums core that makes Ghetto Retro feel so warm and timeless.
The single, "Heart & Soul," captures the throbbing drama of a kind of vintage R&B that concerns matters of deeper import than Bentleys and Belvedere, serving by turns as a declaration of love and an artistic manifesto. Yet BJ also shows off a new swag with an inventive reimagining of 50 Cent's "21 Questions" over a live band, co-produced by Ledisi mastermind Sundra Manning.
This more than anything else gives a foretaste of the album to come, judging from the unreleased tracks he played me, all of which featured live instrumentation. This is a far more expensive way to make a record, but he hopes to have complete and release it sometime in 2012.
"Honestly, if Tajai hadn't said, 'We should do a record, I'll help you pay for it,' I probably wouldn't have been able to do it," he says, clearly relishing the new material. "I do it for the love of music, nothing else." *