raphael saadiq’s ‘jimmy lee’ is the r&b album we needed right now

September 3, 2019
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The spring of 1988 was a crazy year that saw Black America going through hell stemming from two terms of Ronald Reagan’s destructive policies as president, record-high unemployment, and the snowfall of Nicaraguan Contra-trafficked cocaine that was steadily destroying our communities with crack, gangbanging, and gun violence. During that same time, rebel-rousing groups Public Enemy and N.W.A. were becoming the soundtrack of ‘hoods from coast to coast as their beats blared over the constant police sirens and gunshots while also competing with the “New Jack“ radio-friendly soul of Al B. Sure and Keith Sweat that dominated urban radio.

It was during those dark days that the Oakland-based trio Tony! Toni! Toné! crash-landed on the scene wearing vintage styled clothes and bearing instruments they had learned to play in their garages as teens. Consisting of Raphael Saadiq, older brother Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley, the Tonys debut Who? was fresh as mama’s cooked food and had a feel-good vibe that celebrated love and romance with a little bit of partying and bullshit mixed in for good measure.

Coming at a time when “real” bands were being pushed aside for rappers and sampling producers, the members of TTT were experimental traditionalists who were down with old school soul Al Green and the hip-hop attitude of Too Short, providing a bridge between the two worlds as they cultivated fans from both camps. On the cover of Who?, 22-year-old Raphael, who was still going by the Wiggins surname (the Saadiq didn’t come until a few years later) stood in the middle looking cool as a junior playa playa while on record he was the lead singer, bass player, and keyboardist.

As a unit, TTT modeled their sound on the music they grown-up with that included the onyx-hued pop of Motown men Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations as well as the aural gumbo of Bay Area funk sensations that included Tower of Power, Sly & the Family Stone, and Billy Preston. Much like former mentor Prince, who they had worked with briefly when they toured with Shelia E., these cats were versatile. In those early days, they thought of themselves as “the Black Police,” a nod to Sting’s pioneering rock group, and from the jump celebrated their retro leanings on early soulful singles “Baby Doll” and “Born Not to Know.” Their music and style planted the neo-soul seeds that would sprout years later with D’Angelo, himself a Saadiq protégé, Erkyah Badu, Maxwell, and Jill Scott.

Of course, coming from those Oaktown streets they had witnessed firsthand the trouble that poverty, violence, joblessness, and addiction, can cause in a community, but their lyrics stayed away from revealing too much of their personal experiences with the darker side of the hood. There was no talking smack about crackhead cousins, drunken daddies, and beat down mamas who just couldn’t take anymore. Indeed, as music critic Robert Christgau once wrote, “Music is one thing, life is another.”

The Tonys displayed a homegrown talent and originality that grew immensely through their four albums and eight years together. By the time their last joint, House of Music (1996), was released in 1996, Raphael Saadiq refused to look back and was already spreading his musical wings behind the scenes with TTT’s album dropping eight months after his D’Angelo produced hit single “Lady” was released. Like his inspirations, Saadiq had developed into a well-rounded musician who played, composed and produced.

From streets to the suites, the bedroom to the boardroom, Saadiq’s sound ruled and he soon sprinkled his talent on outside productions ranging from Total’s guitar-driven “Kissin’ You” to D’Angelo’s warm baby oil ballad “Untitled” to Solange Knowles’s revolutionary Seat at the Table album three years ago. In addition, the brother also spearheaded his own projects that included the short-lived super-group with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson, Lucy Pearl (2000); Instant Vintage (2002); The Way I See It (2008); and Stone Rollin’(2011).

Eight years after his last solo release, at the age of 53, Saadiq returns with the immensely personal Jimmy Lee, an album that is as intimate as reading journal entries, but will still have you dancing in your seat. Named after his heroin-addicted brother Jimmy Lee Baker who overdosed in the 1990s, the album delves deep, not just into the worlds of junkies and fiends, but also the psyches of those who love them including the weeping wives, miserable mothers, and disappointed children who must witness the downfall. “My kids cry, my wife’s scared, my friends think I’m better off dead,” he sings on the standout “Kings Fall,” a musically experimental track that is as powerful as the song’s protagonist is weak.

What I’ve always loved about Saadiq’s sound is his ability to make future music while also paying homage to throwback soul/funk elders. On “Something Keeps Calling,” whose title and lyric recalls Chris Rock’s cinematic crackhead Pookie in “New Jack City,” the music has a taste of Isley Brother’s that includes guitarist Rob Beacon getting his Ernie on with a guitar solo that gets all “Who’s That Lady” on us. Native Detroit ax-man Beacon has played on the road and on record with Saadiq for years and deserves a shout-out for always bringing the funk.

While Jimmy Lee is a dark album, the Wonderish second track “So Ready” has a disco groove that could fool you into believing it wasn’t about a regretful cat who “went too far” with his lies and foolishness. Still, Saadiq doesn’t shy away from sinister sounds as can be heard on the chilling junkie death rattle “Glory to the Veins,” one of my personal favorites, and “I’m Feeling Love,” where he takes it back to Riot-era Sly Stone complete with a nocturnal growl.

At an age when most middle-aged soul folks are content to become museum pieces performing at oldies shows across the world, Raphael Saadiq has delivered an innovative, damn near brilliant album that tackles the subject of addiction with gusto, God and genius. Much like Curtis Mayfield’s masterwork Super Fly soundtrack, Saadiq takes us into the hearts, minds, and souls of pushers and users lost in the sickness as well as the innocent folks helplessly forced to witness their fall.