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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.

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