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.
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.