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Seeing a television show with a predominantly black cast may not cause much of an uproar in 2020, but 30 years ago, any advancement in our representation on-screen was cause for celebration. Sure, the previous two decades had given us a handful of classic sitcoms - The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Son, 227, The Cosby Show, and A Different World among them - geared toward a black audience, but 1990 marked the beginning of a period during which Tinseltown would open the flood-gates. Television behemoths like ABC (Family Matters, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper) and NBC (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) continued to tap into the urban market, which, by then, had become a jackpot for ratings, prompting other networks to follow suit by shifting their own programming. FOX, in particular, had turned itself into a serious competitor in short order. Launched in 1986, the network quickly emerged as a favorite among the 18 to 40 demographic, with groundbreaking programs like In Living Color, Martin, Living Single, New York Undercover, Roc, and The Sinbad Show all making their debut during the early '90s.
This renaissance reached a fever pitch when The WB, which would become a central hub for black entertainment on the small screen, was launched on January 11, 1995. A joint venture between Warner Bros. Entertainment and Tribune Broadcasting, the formation of The WB Television Network was first announced in 1993, amid deregulation of media ownership rules. Taking a page out of FOX's book, The WB braintrust included a number of the network's former executives, most noticeably FOX's original President Jamie Kellner, and Programming Chief Garth Ancier, both of whom served at the helm during the networks launch. While the major networks often presented sterile images of black households and characters that were meant to be relatable to mainstream audiences, only FOX had tapped into the energy and aesthetic surrounding hip-hop, which had become a driving force in pop culture at that point. The WB would help fill that void in a big way with programming that not only reflected the vibe of the streets, but embraced the art of the music and the artists that made it.
This was evident from the network's launch, with the debut episode of The Wayans Bros. immediately setting the tone for what was to come. The first program to ever air on The WB, The Wayans Bros. starred brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans, the younger siblings of actors/comedians Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. Following stints on the final seasons of In Living Color, as well as roles in various films and television shows, respectively, Shawn and Marlon were tapped by The WB to create and star in their own sitcom, giving the duo creative license to bring their vision to life. Set in Harlem, New York, The Wayans Bros. centered around the lives of Shawn and Marlon Williams, two brothers striving to realize their dreams while toiling away at their respective jobs. Boasting a cast that included John Witherspoon (John "Pops" Williams), Anna Maria Horsford (Deirdre "Dee" Baxter), Lela Rochon (Lisa Saunders), Paula Jai Parker (Monique), Jill Tasker (Lou Malino) and other recurring characters, The Wayans Bros. gave The WB a credible sitcom to build its legs on, with Shawn and Marlon's cache among young black viewers drawing eyes to the network.
Avid fans of rap music and products of hip-hop culture, the Wayans' made sure to make their affinity for the five elements known from the jump, with their decision to use the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest's 1993 single "Electric Relaxation" as the opening theme song and the graffiti-inspired logo for the show serving as two blatant indicators of this love affair. Sporting the trendiest brands of the time and infusing popular street slang into their dialogue, Shawn and Marlon presented an authentic, albeit humorous, glimpse of young black men that wore baggy jeans instead of slacks and were from the hood, but came from a two-parent home and were far from criminal-minded. Airing 13 episodes during its debut season, the breakout success of The Wayans Bros. resulted in the show being renewed for a second season, helping solidify the duo as viable comedic talents while establishing The WB as a force to be reckoned with.
On January 18, 1995, the week following the debut of The Wayans Bros. The WB aired the first episode of The Parent 'Hood, a family-friendly sitcom in the mold of The Cosby Show. Created by and starring actor/director/comedian/writer Robert Townsend, The Parent 'Hood centered around the growing pains of an upwardly mobile black family based in Harlem, New York. Townsend plays a college professor (Robert Peterson), a hands-on dad and strict disciplinarian, opposite Suzzanne Douglas (Geraldine "Jerri" Peterson), the family matriarch pursuing a law degree. Other cast members included Reagan Gomez-Preston (Zaria Peterson), Kenny Blank (Michael Peterson), Faizon Love (Wendell Wilcox), Curtis Williams (Nicholas Peterson), and Ashli Amari Adams (Cecilia "CeCe" Peterson). In addition to traditional sitcom tropes about family values and morals, The Parent 'Hood also tackled serious issues like domestic abuse, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, and gang violence, giving the show additional depth and garnering rave reviews from critics.
The Wayans Bros., The Parent 'Hood, and Unhappily Ever After - another sitcom that debuted on The WB as part of its initial roll-out - all saw immediate success and were green-lit for second seasons. But Muscle, a short-lived parody sitcom that was also a part of The WB's original Wednesday night lineup, was cancelled due to low ratings. Looking to fill the time slot, The WB picked up Sister, Sister, a fictional sitcom about reunited twin sisters who were separated at birth, that was cancelled by ABC the previous year. Starring Tia (Tia Andrea Landry) and Tamera (Tamera Ann Campbell) Mowry, with a supporting cast comprised of Jackée Harry (Lisa Landry Sims), Tim Reid (Raymond Earl "Ray" Campbell), and Marques Houston (Roger Evans), the show aired on The WB for its final four seasons, becoming one of the most popular shows on the network and catapulting the Mowry family to stardom. Around this time, The WB unveiled the First Time Out, the network's answer to FOX's Living Single and infiltration of the Latino market, which had a brief shelf life before being cancelled mid-season, but remains noteworthy within the Latin community.
As The WB continued to expand for the 1996-1997 television season, the network introduced additional programming with the debuts of The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Created by Winifred Hervey and directed by Stan Lathan, The Steve Harvey Show cast comedian Steve Harvey in a starring role as Steve Hightower, a former music legend-turned-music teacher who plays an active part in his students’ lives while balancing his own love life. Playing alongside Cedric the Entertainer (Cedric Jackie Robinson), Wendy Raquel Robinson (Principal Regina Grier-Maddox), Terri J. Vaughn (Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson), the late Merlin Santana (Romeo Santana), William Lee Scott (Stanley "Bullethead" Kuznocki) and others, Steve Harvey's performance helped turn him into a household name on the national stage and remains one of the definitive roles of his career. Standout showings during his time as a cast member on In Living Color and in recurring appearances on the FOX sitcom Roc aside, Jamie Foxx was still building his reputation as a comedic actor when the first episode of The Jamie Foxx Show premiered on The WB on August 28, 1996. Starring as Jamie King, an aspiring musician from Texas who works in his aunt and uncle's hotel, The Kings Tower, while pursuing his career, Foxx's star rose rapidly during the show's five-season run, as did that of castmates Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca "Fancy" Monroe), Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P. Hartnabrig), Ellia English (Aunt Helen King), and Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), all of whom scored various roles in television and film in the subsequent years.
In addition to sitcoms, The WB also introduced animated content for children via the Kids' WB program block, which was introduced in September 1995. While largely comprised of popular Warner Bros. cartoons, Kids' WB also featured original series like Freakazoid!, Earthworm Jim, and Waynehead, the latter of which would prove to be highly influential. Created by comedian Damon Wayans, Waynehead, which is based on Wayans' own childhood, centers around Damien "Damey" Wayne, an inner-city kid with a club foot and a gang of friends. Featuring a voice cast including Orlando Brown (Damey Wayne), Tico Wells (Marvin), Jamil Walker Smith (Mo' Money), T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh (Roz), Shawn Wayans (Toof), and Marlon Wayans (Blue), Waynehead would only run for 13 episodes prior to being cancelled, but is remembered for its plot and giving kids from the projects and inner-city characters and scenarios that reflected their reality and has become a cult classic with the passage of time.
As the latter half of the '90s progressed, The WB became entrenched as one of the go-to hubs for black entertainment, with its slate of shows moving the needle and presenting viewers with stories and environments familiar to their own. Soon, after the initial run of shows, The WB would add additional shows with black leads to round out its programming block, picking up the NBC sitcom For Your Love, starring Holly Robinson Peete and James Lesure. However, when the network’s expansion into the teen market yielded huge returns in terms of ratings, hit shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Charmed, 7th Heaven, and Roswell began to become the priority. This change, along with competing networks like UPN doubling down on The WB's formula and cornering the urban market, would help result in the eventual demise of The WB's flagship shows. The first show to bite the dust would be The Wayans Bros., which aired its final episode on May 20, 1999, after a five-season run. Just days later, on May 23, 1999, Sister, Sister would follow suit after four seasons on the network, with The Parent 'Hood being the next to go just months later. The Jamie Foxx Show would last five seasons before bowing out at the top of 2001, while The Steve Harvey Show held on the longest, surviving until the following year after six seasons, making it the longest running show with a black lead in the network's history.
Aside from the animated series Static Shock and the short-lived, Anthony Anderson-helmed sitcom All About the Andersons, The WB placed its focus squarely on teen dramas and sitcoms with Caucasian leads, with shows like Everwood, Felicity, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gilmore Girls all gaining traction. However, after the teen-boom of the late '90s and early aughts faded out, ratings for The WB declined, prompting CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment to shut down the network in 2006 and jointly launch The CW later that same year. Officially shutting down on September 17, 2006, The WB's most popular programs would be moved to The CW the next day, marking the end of an era. Outlasting fierce competitor UPN, which shut down two days prior and would also have select programs moved to The CW upon its launch, The WB remains near and dear to the hearts of multiple generations of black television viewers and produced some of the most beloved sitcoms of its time. As shows like The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show continue to live on via syndication, DVD, streaming services and YouTube clips a quarter century later, The WB's legacy as a major conduit in helping bring black entertainment to the forefront is iron-clad.
Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarrasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.
But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”
The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.
"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."
Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."
The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?
There are other reasons people criticize Tyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.
Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends, and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, it's in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.
With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit—even when the end result may not be to your taste.
When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken Sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.
Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.
Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.
And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.
“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame.
Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.
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
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.