You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Album Review: Raphael Saadiq’s ‘Jimmy Lee’

In an oddly quiet way, Raphael Saadiq has been a towering figure in the R&B of the last 30 years. As a teenager in the mid-1980s, the Oakland native became the bassist in Sheila E.’s backing band and often found himself performing with Prince in the superstar’s frequent small-club jams. He then formed and fronted the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! with his brother D’Wayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley, releasing four albums over nine years and enjoying hits like “Feels Good,” “Anniversary” and “If I Had No Loot.” By the time that group split in 1996, Saadiq was already well on his way as a songwriter and producer for hire, working with D’Angelo — he co-wrote two of the singer’s biggest hits, “Lady” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” — the Roots, Total and more. In 1999 he formed Lucy Pearl with Dawn Robinson from En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest, then released a pair of solo albums; 2002’s “Instant Vintage” was nominated for four Grammy Awards.

Many of those projects come into play on the new “Jimmy Lee,” Saadiq’s first album in eight years. A loosely conceptual project inspired by his late brother’s struggles with substance abuse, it features guest spots from Kendrick Lamar and gospel singer Rev. Elijah Baker, among others. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the collection offers a remarkably wide-ranging and uplifting combination of R&B styles. It’s fully contemporary yet, as always, includes nods to the soul legends that inspired Saadiq, this time with the added influence of the socially conscious 1970s work of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Also, unusually for contemporary R&B, Saadiq’s songs seem mostly to have been written on guitar or bass (he excels on both), giving them a rootsy core that’s rare in most popular music today.

Over the past couple of decades Saadiq has worked extensively as a producer and songwriter — most prominently with Mary J. Blige, Wonder, Solange, Whitney Houston, John Legend, Andra Day, Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross and the Bee Gees. He’s also scored or had his songs featured in many films and television series, ranging from Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Just Me and You” (in “Boyz n the Hood”) to the song “Mighty River” (in “Mudbound”), which was sung by Blige and scored Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

Yet through it all, Saadiq’s solo career has been almost a side hustle, taking a back seat to his collaborations. While he performs regularly as a frontman and a supporting musician (he even led the band that backed Mick Jagger at the 2011 Grammy Awards), when asked about his seeming aversion to the spotlight, Saadiq told Variety last year, “I just don’t care, man. I like being around regular people — I don’t like weird artists and all that. I don’t get caught up in the hype.”

However, that attitude doesn’t marginalize his music at all: As the title “Instant Vintage” implies, his work is both contemporary and classic, fusing modern sounds with the soul of the ’60s and ’70s that he grew up on; the influences of Wonder and Prince cast a benevolent shadow over nearly everything he does. His 2008 album, “The Way I See It,” was a deliberate and razor-sharp homage to Motown and the R&B of the ’60s, featuring period artwork, complete with a photo of Saadiq on the cover dressed as a classic soul man. The release garnered three Grammy nominations and was the kind of album you could groove to by yourself and also give to your Motown-loving aunt for her birthday. “Stone Rollin’,” from 2011, was less micro-focused but just as resonant.

While there isn’t a defined plot to “Jimmy Lee,” it examines multiples stages and sides of substance abuse, opening with “Sinner’s Prayer,” a harrowing number that finds the singer lamenting his life choices in a voice about as tinged with desperation as it can be without shouting. The Wonder-reminiscent “So Ready” addresses addiction too (“I’m still out here living wrong / The drugs was too strong / I’m still out here lyin’ / But inside I’m dyin’”), but it’s a mellifluous funk number with Michael Jackson-esque backing vocals and some ultra-dextrous bass playing. Elsewhere, “I’m Feeling Love” is a ballad with an easy groove, and the march-like, call-and-response quality of “My Walk” gives it a traditional air as he sings in the voices of the family members harmed by Jimmy’s addiction (“I love Jimmy but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn”).

The album continues through the character’s struggles and the impact they have upon his family, and winds down with “Riker’s Island,” which includes a forceful spoken-word musing from actor Daniel J. Watts (“In the Heights,” “Motown: The Musical”) about the vast number of African American men incarcerated in the U.S. And while other guest appearances are few and far between, they are effective: Lamar weighs in with bars on the closing “Rearview,” and octogenarian gospel musician the Reverend Baker (also Saadiq’s uncle) co-wrote and sings on “Belongs to God,” bringing the number some rousing church flavor.

As if to drive home the 1970s vibe that imbues much of “Jimmy Lee,” many of the songs end abruptly, cut off by light static, as if the listener had suddenly turned an old-school radio dial. The effect makes an occasionally jarring record even more so, the jolting changes of scenery throwing the stylistic diversity of the contents into dramatic relief. All of which, no doubt, is part of Saadiq’s plan. Clearly, he didn’t make “Jimmy Lee” in a bid for superstardom or to cash in on the countless songwriting and producing credits he’s accumulated over the decades; he did it to make a point, and to make an impact. And as personal as the album may be at times, it’s also an uplifting and universal take for anyone who’s experienced life with a troubled loved one.

More Music

  • Juice WRLD - Jarad HigginsWireless Festival,

    Juice Wrld Streams Climb Nearly 500% After His Death

    As often happens after an unexpected death, Juice Wrld’s music soared in popularity after his passing on Sunday, with streams climbing nearly 500% on that day alone. On-demand audio streams for the rapper, who died at the age of 21 after suffering a seizure at Chicago’s Midway Airport, climbed 487% on Sunday to more than [...]

  • Harry Styles performs at the Greek

    First Look at Harry Styles' Ticket-Giveaway Bus (EXCLUSIVE)

    Harry Styles announced Tuesday he is partnering with American Express to give away tickets to his concert at the Forum in Los Angeles on Friday — on a special custom bus. At the show, “Harry Styles Fine Line Live: One Night Only!,” the singer is expected to perform his entire new album, which is also [...]


    Sting, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp Relive '80s Glory Days at Rainforest Benefit

    Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp teamed up for two duets; Debbie Harry and DMC (Darryl McDaniels) collaborated on an epic rap collaboration; and the Eurythmics reunited for a set at Sting and Trudie Styler’s 30th annual Rainforest Benefit at the Beacon Theater in New York City Monday night (Dec. 9). The event  was hosted by [...]

  • Entertainment One

    Entertainment One Teams With Latin Music Management Company Entotal

    Entertainment One (eOne) has partnered with Entotal Agency,  an artist management company co-founded Tom Muzquiz and Jorge Sánchez, with Diego Abaroa. With a roster that includes Fanny Lu, Raquel Sofia, Lupita Infante and Martina La Peligrosa, Entotal specializes in Latin markets and also offers marketing, promotion, social media and public relations services. eOne’s Latin bonafides [...]

  • Weeknd

    The Weeknd Takes Top Two Spots on Rolling Stone Singles Chart

    Fighting off a seasonal surge from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” The Weeknd’s two new singles topped the Rolling Stone Top 100 songs chart this week. “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights,” both of which dropped last week, rocketed to No. 1 and 2 respectively with more than 40 million streams between them. [...]

  • Pharrell Williams, Nicole AvantThe Black Godfather

    Pharrell Williams and Nicole Avant on Creating New Music for 'The Black Godfather'

    Pharrell Williams is giving viewers an inside look at his songwriting process for “Letter to my Godfather,” a new tune he wrote for “The Black Godfather,” Netflix documentary about legendary music executive Clarence Avant. “Clarence Avant is known as ‘The Black Godfather’ because literally as a black man, he was able to do things that [...]

  • Warner Music Group Logo

    Warner Music, Providence Equity Launch $650 Million Fund to Invest in Song Catalogs

    UPDATED: Warner Music Group and Providence Equity Partners today announced plans to invest in recorded-music and music-publishing catalogs via a newly established platform, Tempo Music Investments, that has raised $650 million. Among the first acquisitions of the venture are selected copyrights of Grammy Award-winning songwriters Jeff Bhasker and Shane McAnally, and Ben Rector. The move [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content