In spite of (or perhaps because of) how prolific Raphael Saadiq has been in the music industry since his days at the forefront of new jack swing as lead singer and bassist of Tony! Toni! Toné!, it has always been rare to see him truly in the spotlight. While his production credits – for artists like Solange, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Lionel Richie, and numerous other luminaries of the greater soul music sphere – stretch on for metaphorical miles, especially in conjunction with features for other artists and film and television music compositions, Saadiq only has five solo studio album to his name. It hasn’t stopped him from getting well-deserved recognition, including 18 Grammy nominations (including three wins) and even a nod from the Academy (a Best Original Song nomination for a song in the movie Mudbound co-written with Blige). It has, though, meant that we rarely have the privilege of hearing Saadiq’s voice singing from Saadiq’s heart.
On Jimmy Lee, that all changes. Named for a late brother who died of an overdose after a lifelong struggle with heroin, it tackles the consequences of addiction and mass incarceration, championing the power of the personal narrative. Saadiq takes inspiration from Jimmy Lee’s and his own stories to demonstrate and address real-world issues and injustices, particularly those that disproportionately impact black men in America. Saadiq’s recent orientation toward cinematic scores shows in poignant doses of drama as early as opening track “Sinner’s Prayer”. Strings, a backing chorus, and echoing electronics tell the story of a man at the bottom, his only chance of surviving the night a plea sent out to the heavens.
A sudden stop takes us into the tense bassline of “So Ready”, a track that sees Saadiq’s narrator urgent, eager, and unstoppable on a path of destruction, taking drugs, telling lies, and breaking hearts. Musically, it makes use of Saadiq’s deep love for the vintage with classic 1970s funk sounds, but unlike the retro fantasies he’s embraced on past solo work, including the classic Motown stylings of 2008’s The Way I See It and 2011’s bluesier Stone Rollin’, Jimmy Lee has a modern gloss to it. That becomes more and more evident as the story unfolds.
“This World Is Drunk” steps outside of the mind of the protagonist to paint his tragic portrait instead. “His brain weighs at least a ton / His mind is so stressed out / Trying to be a king / When everyone around him / Sees the clown,” sings Saadiq with weary sorrow before jumping back into the lead role. “Something Keeps Calling” sees him take on a sweet falsetto, ecstatic as he follows the siren song of the drugs that will claim his life in more ways than one. Rob Bacon’s psychedelic guitar lines here intoxicate, driving the stakes higher and higher. The blissful plateau of “Kings Fall” draws textual parallels between drug dealers and deities.
Here, ingeniously, sonic dissonance begins to creep in, growing more prominent as the narrator loses touch with reality and spins out of control with Saadiq as producer and director. The jarring electronics and unpredictable vocal lines of “I’m Feeling Love” and “My Walk” add distressing overtones to otherwise steady soul songs. The latter’s engaging call-and-response structure makes its events – in which Jimmy is eventually “found by the Bay” – even more devastating of a twist.
Mournfully comforting “Belongs to God” is a funereal gospel song, with Reverend E. Baker leading a choir in willing the body to its creator. An epilogue to Jimmy Lee’s story comes in the form of “Glory to the Veins”, Saadiq as himself at a crossroads, deciding whether to follow in his brother’s footsteps as an escape from an oppressive world or to resist and keep trudging onward. Jazz pianist Ernest Turner adds the sparkle of a spinning mind to the otherwise dreary instrumentals. The song ends on an ambiguous note with Saadiq repeating a jaded “oh, well” until the song ends in a burst of static.
Finally, Saadiq turns the album outward to the problem of mass incarceration and racial inequalities in the justice system on bold “Rikers Island”, where Saadiq pleads: “Set them free!” The following spoken-word piece performed by stage star Daniel J. Watts sets forward a final statement against imprisonment as modern-day slavery. It closes with an urgent reference to Hughes and a call for human rights: “I hate that this deferred dream keeps recurring / Wake up, America; wake up and hurry!”
Closing track “Rearview” ties together the individual and collective stories that comprise Jimmy Lee. The song urges its listeners to take their reflections and move forward to make large-scale waves regardless of what they feel their personal flaws are. It is the only song to fade out rather than to end with a jolt. While it doesn’t sound outright upbeat, it ends the album on a note of hope and a reminder that the right way is rarely the easy way.
With Jimmy Lee, Raphael Saadiq strikes a remarkable balance. He lays scenes of personal pain before us, bare and brutal, and shows us how his brother’s story both affects him and fits into a larger landscape of widespread cultural trauma. Saadiq puts his artistic skills to use in full, reaching new emotional and technical heights while delving into heartbreaking lows. Jimmy Lee shows why, even though he so often stays behind the scenes these days, his is one of the most compelling voices in modern-day soul music.