Raphael Saadiq Confronts His Past
Over the course of his life, Charlie Ray Wiggins (a.k.a. Raphael Saadiq) has lost siblings to drugs, murder, suicide and a car accident. Despite that deluge of misfortune, his three-decade music career has stuck to an ethos laid out by his first top ten hit with Tony! Toni! Toné!: “Feels Good.”
It’s only on Jimmy Lee, his first album in eight years (out 8/23), that he finally opens up about his familial loss; it’s far and away the most introspective, fractured and downright gloomy record he’s ever made, named after yet another brother of his to die tragically in the ‘90s from a heroin overdose at age 42.
“I didn’t think about [the personal content] too much,” Saadiq tells TIDAL of making the album. “Now I have to show up and talk about it. I’m ready for the questions but the answers are changing every day. This has been like therapy for me a little in a way.” Then he pauses. “I think I need real therapy now, though,” he adds with a laugh.
“I guess the album’s really about the things that you don’t think about,” he continues. “Like I should have had a conversation with my brother asking like how challenging was his life. He had been going through [addiction] his whole life, since he was 12 or 13. I’m trying to tell this story through a little boy’s perspective, a boy to a man.”
Until now, Saadiq had done just about everything but make a dark record. As far as long-running R&B artists go, his music has far less “B” than most. Tony! Toni! Toné!’s crafty funk gave way to neo-soul explorations, an imagined blaxploitation soundtrack, and quite a bit of time-travel between old-school and present-day sounds. His 2008 masterpiece The Way I See It was a painstakingly simulated Motown album down to the slightly distorted mics — and 2011’s Stone Rollin’ built on the rock side of that.
At 53, Saadiq may be the smartest guy in the room, but he isn’t going to boast about it — even though he’s played with luminaries as varied as Mick Jagger, Elton John, Larry Graham, Robert Randolph, Mary J. Blige (with whom he scored an Oscar nom) and, on the new album, Kendrick Lamar. In 2017, he executive-produced Solange’s number-one album A Seat at the Table, which topped several year-end lists. By all rights, he’s kind of a Zelig figure who’s been involved in some of R&B’s biggest sea changes. And, true to his chameleonic self, the lyrically candid Jimmy Lee is unlike anything that came before it.
“I lost a brother to AIDS / Still he laughed every day,” he sings on the bleak, trip-hop-paced “Glory to the Veins,” referencing the HIV-positive Jimmy. Another desolate track is called “The World Is Drunk” (Saadiq explains, “The two worst things to be at any one time is mad and drunk. It’s like the worst combination ever.”) And a significant amount of time is given to the partly spoken coda, “Rikers Island,” which touches on racism and mass incarceration, concluding “Orange isn’t the new black / Black is the same black.” Designated orator Kendrick Lamar takes the record out.
Musically, Jimmy Lee transitions from the retro boundaries of The Way I See It and Stone Rollin’ to abrasive glitch-and-twitch on a song like “My Walk” as if it’s not completely alien territory for Saadiq. “I call that my New York boom-batter. Charlie [Burrell, producer] wanted to give it to Busta Rhymes and I kind of snatched it before it got to Busta,” he says, laughing.
The gap between albums was not intentional, Saadiq says. He was immersed in scoring TV shows like Insecure, Underground, L.A.’s Finest, and waylaid by personal events, including the death of his father two years back. “It’s not the number-one thing when it comes to life,” he says of dropping new music.
“I wanted to do more music industry things and not be looked at like just an artist,” he adds. “Other things are more important than singing and being on the stage. I love the communal process, I love working on teams.”
As for the new album, it happened on the fly, with Saadiq writing music without plans of releasing — until he had amassed an undeniable collection of tracks.
Saadiq vows to have even more new music out next year, though: “What I want to start doing is putting out singles now, maybe three joints at a time.”
Despite the darker subject matter of this album, Saadiq is still embodies that positive ethos that he helped mold back in the ‘90s. “People think I’m super quiet. But I’m not quiet; I’m kind of loud and funny,” he says. “I talk a lot of trash and I’m an ESPN junkie. I love watching competitive sports because they’ve got to be accountable. In sports, you foul somebody; you’ve got to do a free throw. In music there’s no rules. It’s just the wild, wild whatever.”
It seems like despite everything he’s endured, Saadiq still “feels good.”
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