***ALBUM OF THE MONTH | August 2019***
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Raphael Saadiq’s fifth album Jimmy Lee arrives eight years after his 2011 release Stone Rollin’. His debut album Instant Vintage (2002) aside, his releases have been characterized by an adherence to a fairly strict musical concept. Ray Ray (2004) struck a Blaxploitation era chord, The Way I See It (2008) went further back to hit late ‘60s swooning soul, and Stone Rollin’ went further still in embracing a sound that hinted at both early soul and rock & roll.
His own releases only tell half the story though, given the role he has played in shaping R&B over the last thirty years. From his role in crafting the neo-soul of the mid-90s to his vital role in Solange’s epochal 2016 set A Seat At The Table (and so much more in between), he has contributed as much as anyone to the way R&B sounds today.
Jimmy Lee arrives unshackled to a particular sound or era, sounding unlike any of his other solo albums and it works on almost every level. Those self-imposed stylistic boundaries of his three previous albums offered a chance to show his commitment and discipline, but here he freewheels, offering up a variation in tone and style that has not been readily displayed on his past solo ventures.
Musically it is diverse, lyrically it is more deeply personal than any other album of Saadiq’s. In an interview with The New York Times he revealed the impetus for writing—in early 2019 he began to hear the ghosts of those near and dear to him who he had lost. Those voices of the past helped shape an album filled with regret and rage at the state of the world today. One of those specters of days gone by was that of his brother Jimmy Lee Baker who overdosed in the 1990s—hence the title of this stunning new work.
One thing that hasn’t changed is his unmistakably warm bass playing. It is sumptuously funky, the kind of bass playing you want to give a single red rose to and take out to dinner. It’s there most obviously on the lead single “Something Keeps Calling” that utilizes the same unctuous fluidity that blessed Solange’s A Seat At The Table and on the effervescently bubbling line on “So Ready.”
One thing that has changed, though, is the way in which he uses his voice. There is much greater variation in the pitch and tone of his voice than on previous records; this happens most obviously on album closer “Rearview” (which features a brief cameo from Kendrick Lamar) where his somber, eerie vocals lend further weight to the “Brooklyn Zoo” interpolation. In addition to the affected changes to his voice, there seems to be a greater depth of emotion in his delivery. Album opener “Sinner’s Prayer” finds him beseeching the lord for a savior with a despair-laced vocal.
This extra power seems to stem from the subject matter and the fact that it has lit a fire under his artistry. Affairs of the romantic heart barely get mentioned, for this album is concerned with affairs of the spirit and a world seemingly gone crazy. Palpable dismay with the ways of the world feeds “This World Is Drunk,” with its succinctly put damnation of the nation:
The world is drunk and the people are mad. Factor in a sparse and skeletal piano line that creates a suitably maudlin atmosphere and you have the State Of The Union address that the nation deserves. A similarly foreboding atmosphere fills the self-explanatory “Glory To The Veins.” Laden with doom and dread, it sounds nothing like any other Saadiq record.
So goes the majority of the album where the main concerns are the plight of the black man in America—incarceration in the industrial prison complex, drug abuse and salvation of the soul. “Kings Fall” laments the loss of life, but starts like an outtake from a kung fu movie before an immense first beat drops to accompany an amazing guitar line. The power of the piece is only enhanced by the delightful backing vocals.
Of similar power and impact are the two iterations of “Rikers Island.” Bemoaning the ever-growing prison population, it is filled with gospel inflections and reflects on the power of prayer while Saadiq delivers his manifesto for change: “Too many n***ers in Rikers Island / Why must they be / Too many n***ers in Rikers Island / Set ‘em all free.”
The redux version of the song that follows completes a one-two that is a clarion call to action to achieve the long-stalled equal rights of black and white. Whereas the original version is gospel-tinged, the redux version has a blues persuasion running through it. This redux version features the actor Daniel J Watts reciting verses addressing the inequity in society in particular the “deferred dream that keeps recurring.” Individually they are intense, one after the other they become a slap around the face and a swift kick to the ass to shake anyone deep enough in slumber to gaze upon the waking nightmare that America (and other parts of the world) has been revealed to be.
Devoid of self-imposed stylistic limitations and newly inspired by a past he had previously overlooked, this album is more heartfelt and filled with a depth of emotion that sometimes didn’t translate on previous albums. By throwing off those shackles, he has found the will to tackle more personal subject matter and has picked up the reins thrown down by Toni Morrison when she spoke of the artist’s role in times of despair and trouble.
In that same aforementioned New York Times interview it was clear that Raphael Saadiq is an artist who is appreciated by many, but overlooked by even more. While he sees no value in chasing either awards, or popularity, this album has both the style and substance to remedy that situation.
Notable Tracks: "Kings Fall" | “Rikers Island” | "Sinner’s Prayer" | “Something Keeps Calling Me”