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Raphael Saadiq Balances Personal Introspection With Social Commentary On 'Jimmy Lee'


R&B star Raphael Saadiq has just released his first new album in eight years. It's called "Jimmy Lee," named for his late brother. And it finds Saadiq balancing personal introspection with social commentary. Oliver Wang has our review.


TONY TONI TONE: Play this record as frequently as possible.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Raphael Saadiq has been a pop music mainstay since debuting with Oakland, Calif., Tony! Toni! Tone! in the 1980s. In the '90s Saadiq became a top-tier arranger, producer and songwriter, collaborating with the likes of Solange Knowles, D'Angelo and others. Yet, when it comes to his own solo career, Saadiq's been sparing, with only one previous album released this entire decade. So with his latest, "Jimmy Lee," you get the sense that he only puts his own music out into the world when he has some things he really wants to say.


RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) It's a world epidemic, and the whole world is in it. I lost a brother to AIDS. Still, he laughed every day.

WANG: Saadiq's brother, Jimmy Lee Baker, died of an overdose in the 1990s. He was 1 of 4 siblings Saadiq lost over the course of his life. Those passings aren't always made explicit on the album, but the specter of trauma, both personal and social haunts, these songs.


SAADIQ: (Singing) Even when I'm clean, I'm still a dope fiend. Everyone is always trying to sell me something. I wake up. I feel things crawling. But nobody wants to see a strong man falling. I used to be everybody's hero, shaking hands and kissing babies, wondering what to do, Lord. Oh, oh. I'm wondering what to do, Lord.

WANG: The weightiness of Saadiq's themes - conflict, loss and addiction - also carries into much of his music. Previous albums found him reworking uptempo '60s and '70s R&B styles, but "Jimmy Lee" feels anchored in a darker, heavier and more contemporary sound.


SAADIQ: (Singing) I've been taking back streets just to feed my soul. You don't know me and don't want to see me cold. I don't bother nobody. I do what I do. What I do, I only do it for you.

WANG: Notably, the most musically uplifting song on the album is also its most direct and topical. "Rikers Island" is a two-part interrogation of American incarceration scored with a gorgeous gospel chorus.


SAADIQ: (Singing) Set them free.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Set them free.

SAADIQ: (Singing) The judge sits in the high chair while the family sits and prays, hoping judge and jury, that all 12 will vote their way.

WANG: The constant on the album is a feeling of urgency - for action, for resolution, for change. Raphael Saadiq may be drawing upon personal history, but if "Jimmy Lee" is an allegory of how the past might intervene in the present, we may all have a Jimmy Lee we can relate to - or maybe Jimmy Lee is us.


SAADIQ: (Singing) Something keeps calling me.

CORNISH: Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, is a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. He co-hosts the music podcast "Heat Rocks." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.