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Courtesy of Roc Nation

VIBE’s Staff Reviews JAY-Z’s Album, ‘4:44’

After weeks of trying to decipher the meaning behind the peach posters with four characters stamped in a large black typeface, 06.30.17 finally arrived with the musical gift of JAY-Z's 13th studio album, <em>4:44</em>. Once the clock struck midnight, all of the anticipation seeped out of headphones and speakers and into the eager ears of Hov fans. But what came to light was not at all what was expected from the rapper turned entrepreneur turned family man.

After closely listening to Mr. Carter's lyrical content and 10-track project of honesty, five VIBE editors and writers share their thoughts on the sonically rich No I.D.-produced project that many hip-hop fans have been vibing to since its release.  Dig in down below.


Desire Thompson, Associate News Editor

JAY-Z’s career has lasted as long as the existence of millennials. In that lengthy time frame, the Brooklyn native has endured family hardships and a rap career highlighting his escape from poverty through the drug game. His tales have allowed him to carve a persona that became the standard in hip hop. Four years after Magna Carta Holy Grail, Mr. Carter has laid out his demons on 4:44, a diary of tingling proportions that reminds never to idolize your heroes. A vulnerable and at times, a broken JAY is heard on wax taking accountability for his actions thought to be genius by his former self.

With No I.D. as his proverbial outlet for the rap feels, Shawn Carter steps up to the plate to question the man so many embody (Drake, J.Cole, Meek Mill) and breaks him into pieces. From “Kill Jay Z” to “Family Feud,” the rapper confesses to being the villain in his biggest scandals (Solange, Lance “Un” Rivera) while in an odd way, finding sympathetic refuge from fans. He also expresses need to think ahead, preferably when it comes to his criticized art collection on “The Story of O.J.” One “Legacy,” his wealth becomes another episode in the 13th season finale of his life, providing him financial freedom.

No longer the “guy you can lie to,” JAY’s 10-track opus hits every cerebral chamber. “Smile” is for the soul (along with his mother’s touching spoken-word outro) while “Bam” feeds the ego. “4:44” leaves us debating the ages of male maturity and “Family Feud” gives the Instagram generation lyrics and “super facts” to praise (or criticize). His apologies are for his wife Beyonce and his children, who will bear the burden of learning about their father from two perspectives–his POV and the Internet’s.

Looking ahead has always been JAY’s strongest superpower– which is why he goes back to heal wounds that could continue to dampen his future. With strong samples from Nina Simone, Sister Nancy, The Fugees, Raekwon and a mix of raw and off the cuff beats, JAY finds solace while watching the rap game from the VIP section. It’s the battle between his past and the future that will always haunt him, as he notes on “Marcy Me.” “When Denzel was blottin’ carpet, I’ll pack a nine millimeter when Slick Rick made Mona Lisa,” he recalls. “When Lisa Bonet was Beyoncé of her day, I had divas y’all/ Think I just popped up in this b**ch like a fetus? Nah.”

There are hints that this could be the rapper’s final album when listening to the HOV-centered “Bam,” but at least he’s confessed to truths through music’s most machismo genre. Whether you forgive JAY-Z is your call. In the end, JAY, one of the greatest rappers of our time, has forgiven himself.

Mark Braboy, Contributing Writer

For a very, very long time, JAY-Z has been wearing a diamond-studded, yet very tightly worn mask. That mask has hidden the vulnerability, honesty, and the layered humility of the man named Shawn Carter. And while that mask has slowly been shed since at least The Blueprint, his “face” has finally been unveiled in the form of 4:44.  Hov has given us a body of work where he is unflinchingly poignant and all the way real about not just his personal life and transgressions, but also what it means to be a revolutionary black entrepreneur in the music business while still standing on the side of the oppressed, and still being the God emcee (because…”Bam”).

Liberation screams throughout the entire album in multiple facets whether we our liberating ourselves from our sins of dishonesty and infidelity (“4:44”), the false ideas of what it means to be black and elite (“The Story of O.J”), or breaking free of societal boxes while celebrating and living in one’s truth (“Smile”). Thanks to the scoring done by Chi-Town’s own No I.D.,  4:44 turned out to be a balanced, sophisticated and well-put together package. He shows his growth without being obnoxiously pretentious with his riches like the in Kingdom Come and some parts of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Sure, he flexes (because what’s a Jay album without a little bit of that) but it feels more constructive than some of his last efforts.

This album will forever stand the test of time among both Hov’s greatest masterpieces and hip-hop’s most legendary albums for two sole reasons. One, this album marks the complete evolution of JAY-Z from a musical and personal standpoint. He lyrically outclasses himself throughout the album and challenges himself by adding far more emotional depth than he’s ever done. And two, the musical chemistry between Jay and No I.D. is surreal. It’s the kind that can be seen nowadays among the pairings of Metro Boomin and Gucci Mane or MikeWillMadeIt and Rae Sremmurd. Together, the two have put together a masterpiece that will grow with us like fine wine. With a treasure trove of knowledge and confessions, the Michael Corleone of rap has permanently marked his place in music industry history. Hip-Hop needed this album and after processing this album multiple times, I’m calling it what is. A classic.

Marjua Estevez, Senior Editor

As someone who's been both a victim and culprit of infidelity, I imagine there were levels of difficulties that JAY-Z encountered while recording his long-awaited "Lemonade response." However, I'd be remiss without saying I find some of his most honest one-liners problematic. Words like "I apologize, often womanize/ took for my child to be born to see through a woman's eyes" reeks of what stems from toxic masculinity and, thusly, what we know as patriarchy. Why wasn't Beyoncé enough? Where is the intuitiveness to see women as human, with or without a child? Still, I honor JAY's honesty and readiness to own all of his truths—provided these are really his truths and not just poetic license or material.

I dig this JAY-Z far more than the human he's been in previous eras. I'm not as great at separating the man from the artist as most, however great a prodigy Shawn Carter is in hip-hop culture. But I again would be remiss if I did not sing some of his praises for the 10-track opus he calls 4:44. I appreciate him turning a lens on topics like slavery, colorism, black entrepreneurship, investment, pro-blackness and the idea of financial freedom while paying it forward. There's a sense of privilege, yes, but the jewel for me was him planting that seed that will, in turn, create dialogue around those ideas with his core audience, which spans generations of black and brown communities.

I mostly appreciate JAY's vulnerability, what I interpreted as a softness pouring from his chest in honor of the woman he nearly broke. I don't like to give cookies for things I think should just be, but I do know what it's like to "suck at love." In the story of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, two people chose to return to the groove. That dance that takes years to perfect. And that's what I'm applauding above anything else.

Tony Centeno, Contributing Writer

As soon as he said "Cry Jay Z” on “Kill Jay Z,” I took that moment of foreshadowing as a warning that his 13th studio album would be more emotional and transparent than anything he's ever made. As a longtime fan of the Brooklyn phenom, I’ve worn out all three Blueprints, his “final LP” The Black Album and, of course, his debut album Reasonable Doubt. Yet, 4:44 is not just an album I can play without skipping a beat. It stands as the only album from his extensive catalog that I’ll continue to learn from for years to come.

4:44 exposes the underlying emotions people possess and, like most alpha men, tend to forget. JAY exposes his issues with Prince's legal team in "Caught Their Eyes," yet flashes a big "Smile" as he embraces his mother’s sexual orientation. He shines a bright, golden light on black excellence on "Legacy," and deals with the struggles of racism in America in "The Story of O.J." After flexing his stance on rising social injustice and LGBT rights in America, Hov starts a brand new therapy session in the title track "4:44." You can hear the tremble in his voice as he begs for Bey's forgiveness as he admits his faults in the most honest bars he ever spits.

When he's not baring his soul to the world, Hov offers life advice to the young generation who hold stacks of money up to their ear for the 'Gram. He emphasizes that credit is more important than throwing stacks of cash in the air. He reassures stubborn men everywhere that therapy might not cure all of our mental struggles, but it will help alleviate the constant pain and anguish. The best part about the album is that, after the smoke clears from his lyrical bombs, JAY survives it all. I know some might not agree, but I'll go out on a limb and call this masterpiece his magnum opus.

Richy Rosario, Contributing Writer

Human evolution requires digging deep into a dangerous introspection we often tend to avoid. It takes finding and using that courage inside the strength we didn’t know we had to help us arrive at that place of transparent vulnerability; inevitably collides with the truth we often hide beneath our cleverly pre-meditative constructed faux realities. In his new project, 4:44, we find the 47-year-old JAY-Z in this cathartic and honest destination. The 10-track offering presents Shawn Carter as a mature man who’s ready to right his wrongs. He lays his cards all out on the table and seeks redemption. “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/But you can't heal what you never reveal,” he ponders on the album’s opening, “Kill Jay Z.”

Amid, his travels he still seemingly calls out those who have wronged him, too. In that same track he calls out Kanye West for his infamous 2016 rant in a California concert. The most telling song on the album is “Family Feud” featuring Beyoncé. On Lemonade, she hints of a “Becky with the good hair,” and (seemingly) accuses her husband of an affair with her. That same antagonist comes up on JAY’s side of the story, too. “Yeah, I'll f**k up a good thing if you let me/Let me alone, Becky,” he raps, but he finally comes clean on “4:44” blatantly admitting all his mistakes. He also chooses to free his lesbian mother out the closet on “Smile.”

Sonically, the album is tastefully saturated with great lines and beats, thanks in part to producer No I.D. And while he lays all his shortcomings on wax, he still makes sure to remind you of why you fell in love with him in the first place. “Got the heart of a giant, don't you ever forget/Don't you never forget, Jigga got this shit poppin'/I pulled out the pot when we was outta options,” he declares on “Bam.” After all, the greatest men of all time have made mistakes and JAY Z is seen as no exception.

Ashley Pickens, Contributing Writer 

Shawn Carter knocks down doors, stomping onto the viaduct of his life, with his marriage and family just eye’s view below, meeting JAY-Z on the other end with a death threat. The warning signal that woke the man that harbors the beast and the martyr? The fear of losing his family. That’s 4:44 - the Life And Times of Shawn Carter vs JAY-Z, a crusade to find the existence in the middle of the man and his sobriquet. The title track, “4:44” is the “crux” of the album rests in the middle of the overpass, while his “Legacy” awaits below.

When you lay the “A-side” and “B-side” parallel to each other, there’s a battered tale of the fight it took to awaken the arrival of the man in the middle. Carter explores the treacherous fear of becoming Eric Benet and tries on a suit of vulnerability - in exchange for his armor - as he struggles to accept his exaltation from his days of alibis. While the flip side - the B side, (“Family Feud,” “Bam,” “Moonlight,” and “Marcy Me”) are more of the entertainer we’re familiar with as he braggadociously parades his “cute” billionaire status while he and Bey are “merrily, merrily eating off these streams.”

On the final battle of “Caught Their Eyes” and “Marcy Me,” he taps into Hova, providing for a keener vision to his surroundings. From this, Young Guru gathered and melded the "ideas and truths" that No I.D. hacked away at as his therapist, while everyone followed the Mrs. Carter-approved blueprint. Awakened at 4:44 am was the man in the middle of JAY-Z and Shawn Carter, born and ready to protect his “Legacy” (his children, his Bonnie and Clyde love story, and an empire he can pass down to his children).

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Prince’s Unstoppable Creative Process On Display In '1999' Reissue

Upstart Minneapolis musician Prince Rogers Nelson released an album per year after his 1978 debut, For You, each more sophisticated than the last. But 1999 made Prince a star and solidified his place in music history. After its release in October 1982, the album peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and became the fifth-best-selling album of the following year. Singles “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” peaked in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, and their videos were some of the first by a Black artist to be shown on MTV. Prince’s classic has now been reissued by Warner Bros., with a remaster of the original album and hours of previously unreleased material.

The good news is that the record still sounds as fantastic as it did the first time you heard it. The title track’s synth fanfare heralds your entrance into a new world of grinding machinery and pulsing libido. It’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, but everything’s gone from black and white to shades of purple. Across 11 tracks and 70 minutes, Prince uses dance beats, slow jams, ballads, call and response funk, rock guitar solos, all toward one spiritual purpose: sex. It’s not all crude either. He will pretend to be married if you prefer the illusion of propriety, and he uses “Free” to give thanks for a society that allows him to pump out albums worth of filth and funk.

Like the narrator making dedications in bed on “Lady Cab Driver,” each moment on the album points toward a predecessor in pop and funk: James Brown’s yelp, Larry Graham’s slap, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar heroics. Prince threw in the now-iconic sounds he wrung out of a manipulated Linn Drum Computer and pushed American popular music into the future. The warped drum programming was deeply influential on the emerging sounds of Detroit techno and Chicago house, and it’s stayed relevant into the present where the likes of Billie Eilish and FKA twigs top charts and critics’ polls singing over brittle beats.

In line with the other best updates to classic works, the new remaster is hard to notice. In general, the 2019 version of the album is a little clearer and a lot fuller. It’s the equivalent of watching a favorite movie in HD for the first time. The opening notes of “D.M.S.R.” flit across the sides of the song, rather than sitting in the middle of the stereo mix. Rather than blending together, the layers of bass guitar on “International Lover” now curl in on each other like puffs of smoke. Prince’s vocals, like the coos that become shrieks on “Little Red Corvette”’s bridge, are still kept at a remove through reverb, but the effect doesn’t lessen their power.

The reissue’s second part includes B-sides and alternate edits of album cuts. The majority of these tracks would be inessential even if this was their first time available digitally. A mono single edit of “1999” is an interesting relic of another era in major label promotion, but why opt for the watered-down version? The keepers are the B-sides, including one-take studio wonder “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” and the eight-minute Special Dance Mix of “Little Red Corvette,” which is a dancefloor filler in addition to a historical artifact; Questlove contends it was one of the first times an artist ever remixed their own track.

For casual fans and completists alike, the heart of the 1999 reissue is the nearly two dozen previously unreleased tracks, recorded between November 1981 and January 1983. Prince was in the middle of an incredibly fertile hot streak, writing and recording songs for himself as well as satellite groups The Time and Vanity 6. As his engineer Peggy McCreary pointed out in a recent interview, without the need for a producer or supplementary musicians, the artist was free to spend his recording budget on studio time. “I think he loved being in that environment, because I know, wherever he was, on tour, if they had a day off he would find a studio in that city,” she said. “That's what he loved to do.”

Listeners can now hear some of Prince’s process at work through these unreleased songs. “Feel U Up” is close to a demo, a groove that runs a few minutes too long and a vocal that’s too sheepish to sound coy. The next track, “Irresistible Bitch” from 1981, builds a new song over the same beat with nimble bass, unfurling synths, and new lyrics. Prince goes all out on his vocals, his voice ragged and hoarse like he’s been driven mad with lust. Those vocals give the earlier version the edge over Prince’s more subdued take of the song, recorded and released in 1983 as the B-side to “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” It’s compelling to see what Prince found ready to release at any given time, to hear a seed of an idea grow from a rasp to backing vocals from Wendy & Lisa. The artist would regularly repurpose old tunes, none here more obvious than the would-be generational anthem “Bold Generation” morphing into “New Power Generation” eight years after its initial recording.

Prince lays out his own personal manifesto on “Purple Music” over a spare drum loop. “Ain’t got no theory, ain’t got no rules / I just let the purple music tell my body what to do / And I’m high,” he sings, his voice mixed like he’s found an undiscovered altered state. It’s mesmerizing. The song has been widely bootlegged, but the ancestral hiss of copies of copies of cassettes can’t compare to hearing all 11 minutes in high-quality. 1999 was the first time Prince laid claim to the royal color, including reference to his “purple rock” on “D.M.S.R.” and purple stars on “Automatic.” “Purple Music” makes it clear the color was more than an aesthetic affectation, it was ideal to pursue.

Playing with sexual and gender norms was a cornerstone of Prince’s work, and “Vagina” shows that his most transgressive material went unreleased. Prince sings about the titular person teaching him how to dance in a gay bar over gritty guitars. (No drums, but his beatboxing and other vocal rhythmic cues sound a lot like his peer and rival Michael Jackson.) She’s “half boy, half girl, the best of both worlds,” as he sings on the chorus. It’s a simple love story, complicated by a fluidity that still feels novel today.

All the unreleased material sounds fresh, impressive nearly four decades removed from its recording. (“You’re All I Want” is clearly a recycled “Delirious,” but it gets a pass since it was recorded as a birthday gift to longtime engineer McCreary.) “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” is a slice of driving pop-rock with a charmingly anachronistic Fred Astaire reference. On “If It’ll Make U Happy,” hear the artist dabbling in reggae rhythms with a new wave sheen. Released as a single earlier this fall, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” sounds like Prince in his funky prime because that’s basically what it is.

Posthumous releases always occupy a moral gray area, but Prince kept a literal vault anticipating that some of his material would see the light of day. Michael Howe, archivist for Prince’s vault, recently stated his goal is to “shine a light on the entirety of Prince’s creative legacy”, and the 1999 reissue succeeds. The remaster preserves the album’s sound for future generations to draw from. Prince’s unreleased material illuminates the creative process of one of the most important pop musicians in American history. Parties weren’t meant to last, but the deluxe 1999 should keep it going a few hours longer.

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Danny Brown’s Legacy Is No Joke, 'uknowhatimsayin¿'

“Ain't no pretend, ain't tryna make amends / Just tryna keep my legacy, I'm legend in the end,” Danny Brown raps on “Change Up,” the desolate opening track to his new album uknowhatimsayin¿. Danny Brown has been one of the most consistently great rappers this decade, his adventurous ear and gonzo humor spread across four full-lengths and numerous features. His latest album solidifies that legacy by reviewing familiar themes with a fresh approach.

The Detroit artist’s sound has continually evolved to match the concept of each album, and he points to deceased art-rock god David Bowie as an example. After plunging into the industrial goth abyss on 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, the concept for his latest project uknowhatimsayin¿ is no concept. (Which in Bowie terms would mean it’s his Tonight, I guess?) “Is the music good or not? You don’t need to put the tracklist backwards or anything, you know what I’m sayin?” the Detroit rapper recently told Pigeons & Planes. “Just rap—dope beats and dope rhymes.”

Danny has referred to uknowhatimsayin¿ as “his version of a stand-up comedy album.” Of course, he’s always been funny in his verses. (His breakout project XXX, where he boasts about literally shitting on your mixtape, “wipe with the credits, leave stains on the jewel case,” was just ranked among the 100 best albums of the decade by Pitchfork.) But previously the jokes were there to lighten up the horror of his hardscrabble situations. Now the ratio has flipped, like he’s looking back on his life through the Get-A-Load Of This Guy Cam. There’s an adage from mid-century comedian Steve Allen that comedy is “tragedy plus time;” perhaps, after years as an internationally touring rapper, he feels far enough removed to look at tragic circumstances in a new light.

Hence lead single “Dirty Laundry.” It’s a no-hook compendium of some of Danny’s scummiest moments from back when his main concern was selling drugs without violating his parole. He can afford a prostitute but not a room, so they meet in a Burger King bathroom like Humpty Hump. He turns detergent brands into gun talk with “High Tide, Gain off of Arm & Hammer.”

The literal and metaphorical interpretations of the title interlock in the final verse, where he pays a stripper for sex with change he had left over from the laundromat and spots her doing laundry the very next morning. It’s the sort of free-associative thrill ride Robin Williams used to specialize in, especially while under the influence of the powders Danny used to traffic. It might not all be true, but he’s not lying. It’s not a joke, but it’s funny as hell.

“Belly of the Beast” is from a separate routine entirely. Longtime producer Paul White creates a barely-there beat out of pinging bass notes and vocal sighs. Nigerian singer Obongjayar offers a yearning chorus in his gravelly voice: “They can’t contain me, I’m free / it feels like losing your mind.” The overall effect is like a glimpse of some unknown netherworld beyond human comprehension, like the best psychedelic trip imaginable, and the punchline is Danny’s verses are down-to-earth sex talk. “If it smell like syrup, you gon’ get this work,” he says, “but if it smell like perch, gotta disperse.” And that’s after he brags “Hoes on my dick ‘cuz I look like Roy Orbison.”

To be clear, Danny’s not only focused on sex. He tries out other hip-hop tropes on this record, like a stand-up finding new ways to joke about dating or airplane food. “Savage Nomad” is a flashback to childhood, fighting on the playground after school and stealing the scales from chemistry class for unsanctioned extracurriculars. He references Minnie Riperton and Eric B. & Rakim in the same verse, despite sounding the polar opposite of those artists’ smoothness over rigid hi-hats and squealing guitar. To rhyme it with “impotent” and “licorice,” the rapper bends “LinkedIn” into three syllables. It’s a reference to a podcast, sure, but it also sounds like how a kid might mispronounce a social media site he has no business being on.

“Theme Song” is a diss track. Danny is demanding respect from a new class of rappers ripping off his outlandish style and getting rich, instead of losing a label deal like he did. If he has a specific rapper in mind, it’s too tricky to pin down, but pity anyone whose music is compared to disgraced pastor “Bishop Eddie Long with a thong on.” A$AP Ferg bellows affirmations in the background, like a hypeman chiming in via FaceTime.

Only two other rappers appear on uknowhatimsayin¿, and they’re veterans like Danny himself. Run The Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, appear on posse cut “3 Tearz” to boast about not caring about anything and illuminate the pasts that brought them there. Danny fakes being a crack user so he doesn’t get caught selling in the wrong territory, while El hosts Death on his couch and stalls him with jokes. Like their last collaboration, it’s steep competition, but Killer Mike gets the best line, capping the track with “Win in the end like Tina did goddamn Ike.”

Other luminaries are lurking in the album credits. Dev Hynes of Blood Orange sings the chorus of “Shine,” his airy voice a natural counterpoint to Danny’s yelp. Aggro rising star JPEGMAFIA pops up twice, providing the loping beat for “3 Tearz” and a breathy, Pharrell-esque hook on “Negro Spiritual.” Flying Lotus and Thundercat supply the frantic beat for the latter track, which feels like riding in a car swerving across every lane.

The biggest name attached to the album is executive producer Q-Tip. Though he only produced a few beats for the album himself, all three continue the loose, funky sound explored on the last A Tribe Called Quest record. In particular, Tip shows how to color outside the lines with the chords on “Best Life,” a shoo-in for feel-good rap song of the year. Most importantly, Danny credits the Tribe mastermind with pushing for a simplified sound, requiring him to “damn near relearn how to rap.” Q-Tip may have only been behind the boards for three tracks, but his influence is felt across the record. It’s easy to imagine him lending his ear to other middle-aged rappers in need of a way forward, but Tip is likely too bombastic of a talent to settle into being a background figure forever.

After anticipating trends like pills, EDM beats, and mall goth chic, Danny Brown has sidestepped them entirely on uknowhatimsayin¿. He’s re-focused on spitting memorable verses over hard beats, and as a result, created one of 2019’s best rap albums. It’s replayable with its 33-minute runtime, and the psychedelic beats ensure there’s something new to notice with each spin. Like the best stand-up specials, the album is meant to be passed among friends, choice passages memorized and referenced ad nauseam. As long as there are fans guffawing as their heads knock, rest assured, Danny Brown’s legacy is secured.

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Raphael Saadiq poses for a portrait during the BET Awards 2019 at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Bennett Raglin

Raphael Saadiq Dissects Addiction From All Angles On 'Jimmy Lee'

Near the end of Raphael Saadiq's Jimmy Lee—the producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist's fifth solo album, and his first in eight years—comes the musical and thematic moment that's perhaps the most honest but most opaque on an album largely defined by pulled-back armor and exposed exteroceptors. This transparent yet dishonest climax comes in the form of "Rikers Island Redux," a spoken word performance delivered by actor Daniel J. Watts with slam poetry defiance—it's outward-pointing at things too large to get a hand on, full of defensive aggrandizement and self-satisfied puns. "We got the same glass ceiling but I'm supposed to be thankful for my sunroof/ And massah's still trying to trick himself into believing he picked the cotton, too" he decries while comparing himself and us/we (Black people) to Malcolm X, MLK, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Optimus Prime. "It's complex how being born with this complexion ups the likelihood of dying in a prison complex/ And orange ain't the new black/ Black is the same-same black/ But this ain't just for Black folks," he continues as if this is an album about racism when it isn't. Even if it is.

Jimmy Lee is primarily about Jimmy Lee Baker, Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose in the 1990s, and secondarily about Jimmy Lee as us. "It's not a homage record; it's just a hashtag to Jimmy," the singer shared before the album's release. And in the same way that hashtags of Black victims of police violence encapsulate feelings of pain and loss that transcend the names of the fallen, Jimmy Lee is incredibly more expansive than its 39-minute running time. For the most part, Raphael Saadiq's albums have never been long affairs (his solo debut, Instant Vintage was 76 minutes, but 2002's Ray Ray was 49 minutes; they've basically grown slightly short since) and they have almost always had music and sound as the central conceit. Yet here, Saadiq doesn't mine music history as much as he digs, for the first time as an artist, into the specifics of his personal story. Including Jimmy Lee, he's lost four of his siblings to a mix of violence, drugs, suicide, and police activity—and all of those subjects are present on this record; if not as direct touchstones, then just as the contours that provide the acoustics to hope and despair and entrapment. On "Rearview," the album's closer, Kendrick Lamar asks, "How can I save the world, stuck in this box?" and it's not clear whether the box is literal or metaphorical, self-constructed or an ensnarement by one of the many manifestations of society as an antagonist to Black lives.

"Rearview" is interesting because it features perhaps the greatest rapper living, but he's not credited as a cameo, and he's not quite rapping; he's more of a floating echo of a conscious. The song interpolates a piano riff from Bobby Ellis and The Desmond Miles Seven's "Step Softly," which was famously used on Ol Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo"—and ODB remains hip-hop's most iconic addiction tragedy. Rikers Island is not just the place where the Wu-Tang Clan once performed while their member was an inmate, it's also the name of the two songs preceding "Rearview," including the one where Watts, a guy maybe best known as an ex-convict on Tracy Morgan's The Last O.G., railed against the prison industrial complex and the unseen thoroughfares that fill it with Black bodies.

This may seem like wiredrawing, but it's not in the context of an album that primarily centers on dealing with drug addiction. Jimmy Lee pulls its greatest strengths from subconscious connections because to be an addict is to be a magician, an assassin, and a poet all at once. To say that to be an addict is to be a liar is to absolve and ignore that we are all liars, both to ourselves and to others. To put addiction in terms of the upfront costs that an addict thinks about (the price of acquiring the vice) ignores the collateral taxes of the masks and perfumes used to cover our tracks, and—ultimately—the tolls of severed relationships, broken families, missed opportunities, hurt people left behind.

The album opens with "Sinners Prayer," a needle-point recollection of a police state ("Eight millimeters/ And microscopes/ Fingers on the triggers/ Aimed at my dome") that quickly morphs into a call for divine assistance: "Hope the Most High/ Can see my heart is/ In the right place/ My hands are folded/ My knees are bending." The opposing forces here are disembodied—the police are never mentioned with distinction and the narrator is arguing with his partner about money: "We ain't got none/ Our baby daughter/ May not see five." It's not important why they're broke; it's not important what ails their child. What's important is the sense of despondency that leads to prayer: "This kind of hurt can't be/ Be justified."

What's even more important is that by the next song, "So Ready," Jimmy Lee as us has been failed by God and is damaging his lover and best friend by damaging himself: "I never come home at night/ And you stay by my side/ But then I broke your heart/ I went too far/ I'm still out here living wrong/ The drugs were too strong." One track later, on "This World is Mad," we're stuck facing the behind-the-back jeers of one's family and extended family of community—"Trying to be a king/ When everyone around him/ Sees the clown and/ They're laughing at him." At this point, Jimmy Lee begins to get grand and paranoid, but no longer told from the first person (if only for a moment), as if Raphael needs to see the best in his brother, but also can’t directly handle the psychic weight of fully stepping into the shoes of the dead. He's not quite making excuses and rationalizations for the main character but he does start to blame outside forces more directly—"This world is drunk and the people are mad"—while getting more metaphoric, even as he goes into detail: "He's always in three places/ Spaces undefined/Heart is always racing/ For something he will never find." Here, the album begins to present itself as Raphael Saadiq's best album that's also the hardest to listen to.


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Celebrating Jimmy Lee's Born Day, the love will never change. #JimmyLee #thefunniestever #puppiesforgifts #thoughtfulman #thedude #jjdad

A post shared by Raphael Saadiq (@raphael_saadiq) on Aug 31, 2019 at 9:53am PDT

The music is as accomplished and confidently unshowy as one would expect from the man who was indispensable to songs like D'Angelo's lustful "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," albums like Solange's A Seat At The Table, the music of new jack soul pioneers Tony! Toni! Toné!—who always balanced themes of family and relational intimacy, as well as the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl—which focused almost solely on romantic love. With every song produced or co-produced by Saadiq, Jimmy Lee is sonically defined by low chords, space-giving drums, and rock guitars—dark sounds for dark matters. It's slow-fever blues and desperate gospel that shifts from longing for redemption to turning inward because that's how addiction works. But it’s not all one-note. Jimmy Lee showcases a depth of references, as Saadiq plunges into the DNA of the styles that have influenced him over his three decades of making professional music—leaning on, reimagining, and stripping down material from sources including electronic music to nu-wave pop to emerge with exposed nerves that feel organically cohesive as a body.

The sounds work as a backdrop for these subjects because it feels like the play of opposites of addiction—bouncing lows and soaring highs, smooth descents into jagged edges, hard-earned climbs into transcendence. “And as random as I sound/ I still manage to hold it down,” Saadiq sings on “I’m Feeling Love,” the album’s most straight-forward R&B number that, like D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” is a love song about a vice. On “My Walk,” he’s a firebrand rasping from the pulpit and taking it to the streets with a martial bop that topically references the talent shows, saxophones, and betrayal on his way to becoming a full-fledged musician: “Very next morning I had a horn in my hand/ I thought I was in the Southern Marching Band/ I love Jimmy, but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn/ Jimmy shot heroin and he was my momma's son.” The song ends abruptly shortly thereafter and the next song, “Belongs to God,” feels like a redemptive moment of church blues handled by Rev. Elijah Baker Sr.—it’s actually a slight remake of the gospel singer’s 2017 song, “My Body Belongs to God.” Again, Saadiq steps back as if even speaking from the abyss of his brother’s pain is too much for him. But the album has already shown us that the pull of addiction was too strong for Jimmy Lee to be saved by God’s hands.

Because to be an addict is to be cop, killer, and judge to one's self. It's to occupy the roles of warden, jailor, and inmate (he's always in three places). To be an addict is to feel like a time traveler frozen in a moment that you are not sure you want to get out of, even if you can. "Even when I'm clean/ I'm still a dope fiend," our narrator says on "Kings Fall." It's the album's fifth song, the one after "Something Keeps Calling," where he sings "I feel the burdens on me/ Something keeps calling me/ This is so heavy for me." Yes, he detoured into the second-person on "The World is Drunk," but he put Jimmy Lee as us back in our own body because addiction is a reversal of gazes. Most people blame others in public and ourselves in quiet times, but addiction makes us blame ourselves and only slightly looking out at the world as a cause of our afflictions at our most denying lows. And that's perhaps what makes the closing suite of songs both honest and dishonest.

"Rikers Island Redux" is a coda to the song before it, "Rikers Island," which has a choir (which is actually a multi-tracked version of Saadiq himself) singing that there are "too many niggas in Rikers Island/Why must it be?" It feels like that last big statement Saadiq wants made before he takes the album out, but it's also the one he has been subtly making all along. Drug addiction cannot be separated from the pipe to prison pipeline, nor can the prison industrial complex be separated from slavery, any more than an addict can be separated from the failures of a society. It's no mistake that Jimmy Lee begins with persecution, financial distress, and being alienated from community. So, yes, as Watts claims, "this ain't just for Black folks." But, no, it is.

Jimmy Lee is about the particular forces that viewed the crack epidemic as a commerce center for incarceration but see opioid addiction as a disease to be treated. It's about the law enforcement policies and a legal system that created New York's inordinately punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws while hitting Johnson & Johnson—a company with over $80 billion in yearly revenue—with a relatively paltry $572 million fine for its role in Oklahoma's opioid crisis. The Notorious B.I.G. once claimed that he "sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson," but that's an unabashed lie that tells the truth about how desires and capitalism and racism swirl on themselves, like an ouroboros that eats but never gets full, dancing on its own greed and hate, feeding us sadness and truth and escape, as if anything can ever break a cycle that begins with the individual but cannot be divorced from a society that can only maintain its fullness by making us all hungry for… something.

These ideas repeat themselves like a vicious groundhog day, revealing meaning and connections while the themes bubble from unspoken knowing into pointed lyricism the same way an addict can tell a story that says so much about human truth when they're lying to cover their tracks, both figurative and literal. It's the way that 39 minutes seem so much longer; the way a hashtag says so much more than a name; the way that an addict is a magician, able to be in three places at once—talking about Jimmy Lee as a person, Jimmy Lee as us, and Jimmy Lee as the inevitable outcome of a world equation that has been built on Black labor and genius while giving us almost none of the rewards or fruits of our contributions.

On "Glory to the Veins," Raphael Saadiq admits, "There's too many people walking behind me/ I need you beside me, please come and find me/ It's been so cold/ The light could blind me." He seems to be talking about Jimmy speaking to God, but he may also be talking about himself to us, or about us talking to the world. Because he, like his brother, is able to be in three places at once.

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