Raphael Saadiq has quietly been busy since his last solo album release in 2011. The R&B/soul crooner from the 1990s trio Tony! Toni! Tone! co-wrote Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky;” composed music for HBO’s hit show “Insecure,” and earned his first Oscar nomination in 2018 for co-writing “Mighty River” with Mary J. Blige (from the Netflix movie Mudbound).
Saadiq’s superb writing capabilities are on full display throughout Jimmy Lee-the Oakland native’s latest endeavor from Columbia Records. The project encompasses a tragic personal story about Saadiq’s older brother (named Jimmy Lee) who died of a heroin overdose in the 1990s. Having been able to reflect on the incident for 25-plus years, Saadiq deftly approaches the subject matter with intimacy and care. The death of his brother has clearly changed his outlook on certain aspects of life, particularly substance-abuse and personal upheaval.
The Grammy-winning artist looks inward and outward when converging on these sensitive topics-barely sacrificing the subtle soul and gospel sound in the process. Sometimes though, songs on Jimmy Lee transition into rock epics, like on the passion-heavy “King’s Fall,” where Saadiq considers drug abuse through the lens of the addict (“I want you to be my, supplier, provider, all those things”).
He then swiftly shifts into a different portrait on “I’m Feeling Love;” one of elation and solitude, (“I turned on every light/Because I love my life/I’ve been feeling more than blessed.”) and quite frankly, a complete turnaround tonally. Saadiq calmly strolls over these laid-back boom-bap drums (reminiscent of the 1990s hip hop culture) without a care in the world. He talks about the beauty of a genuine relationship as if it were a replacement method for finding happiness. It’s almost like an alternate universe where suffering and pain is nonexistent.
Jimmy Lee juggles self-realization with black incarceration pretty unevenly, specifically when the album reaches its final third. Saadiq dedicates “Riker’s Island” to the affirmation of a poorly-run system (“He’s says it’s something he didn’t do/He’s afraid to take that long ride down Riker’s”). The sentiment appears genuine, but fails to directly connect with insightful tales about his late brother. Ballads such as “Riker’s Island Redux” and “Rearview” peculiarly emerge as fillers; which is a head-scratcher considering the swift length of the entire project.
The first half balances pinpoint pacing with in-depth songwriting; something Saadiq has honed in on throughout his illustrious career. He navigates a harrowing verse about a drug addict losing his way through a disco backbeat and twinkling keys on “The World is Drunk.” For the second verse, he aptly narrates a socially conscious tale about the same drug addict never acquiring the help he so rightfully deserves. It’s timely concept that’s thankfully starting to become less and less taboo. Mental illness and drug abuse is relevant-we need to start acknowledging its existence.
Saadiq injects his gospel influence quite delicately-using it as a channel for questioning, rather than the main focus. Never is this more apparent than on “Sinner’s Prayer.” The intro track reminds me a lot of early Frank Ocean (like “Bad Religion” or “Pink Matter”), where religion was kind of used in a similar fashion. “Sinner’s Prayer” is more of a plea than an interrogation (“God, help me make it/God, can we make it?”).
He even contemplates religion in the perspective of the addict on “Glory to the Veins.” The distorted bass exudes a feeling of uneasiness that dominates the middle portion of Jimmy Lee. It honestly should have ended the album. Making people uncomfortable will be the only way to end this mental illness stigma.
Aside from a lackluster finish, Jimmy Lee effectively maneuvers through different facets of substance-abuse with potent lyricism, soulful singing and Gospel-influenced production. Waiting this long to address this sensitive topic was surely the right move. Saadiq had plenty of time for reflection, and it clearly shows.