When Raphael Saadiq talks about the past, he does so without a tinge of regret or longing, nor does he speak as if things could have been avoided. For the Tony! Toni! Toné! vocalist-turned-producer and later award-winning solo artist, things just are.
Saadiq, 53, attended his first funeral at the age of 7 after his oldest brother was murdered in a drug-related dispute. Later, his sister died in a car accident, his brother Desmond died by suicide, and Jimmy Lee, the namesake and inspiration behind Saadiq's 2019 record, died of a heroin overdose years after contracting HIV. Saadiq has the portraits of his four deceased siblings tattooed on his arm and, for his late brother, Jimmy, a 13-song rumination on addiction, mass incarceration, and family.
"My brother (Jimmy) was always a real brother to me. I always looked up to him. He was a very nice guy, really funny, and we were really close," Saadiq says of his relationship. "And when you reflect back on the past and you're walking through the present, you realize that the person that you are is because of those people before you — and those people that treated you good, and made sure you were protected from predators, and helped you beat so many different stereotypes because you actually got a chance to watch them go through things. So I just felt like I needed to celebrate my brother and ... people [are] going through exactly what I'm talking about as we speak right now."
On Jimmy Lee, Saadiq's first record since 2011's psychedelia-steeped, Dylan-esque, Stone Rollin', Saadiq leans into his danceable neo-soul stylings with hints of gospel, Motown, and a trove of wise and prolific hypotheticals suited for those touched by addiction and anyone who might find themselves confronted with temptation. As Saadiq poetically confesses on "Glory to the Veins" (feat. Ernest Turner), "I see the door, but I'm not going in."
Saadiq says Jimmy Lee is not the first time he's used music to talk about both real and fictionalized self-destructive figures and their life-altering habits. On Tony! Toni! Toné's 1988 debut, Who?, Saadiq penned "Little Walter," a song about a man who turns to selling drugs to reverse the effects of chronic poverty. On Saadiq's first solo endeavor, 2000's Instant Vintage, the track "Blind Man" explores one's introduction to drugs as a means to ease pain. On Jimmy Lee's Prince-imbued "This World Is Drunk," Saadiq recycles and expands upon a line from a mid-'90s Tony track, which explores the seismic effects of substance abuse through the eyes of a relapsing ex-convict. Then there's "Kings Fall" and "Rikers Island" also from Jimmy Lee, both of which examine the addict-dealer relationship while masterfully combining elements of Motown — think Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" crossed with Marvin Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" — and, yet, it all manages to steer clear of what Saadiq was trying to avoid when he set out to make the deeply personal Jimmy Lee: "a Debbie Downer record."
"I can always find a groove — that's something I do naturally is groove," Saadiq says. "And people listen and figure out the puzzle. I've always mentioned something about drug-related issues somewhere. And I just felt like after making so many different records and — you know, all the records are about love, and R&B records —a lot of them are usually about the same thing. I just wanted to make a record about family, about my brother, and what people go through on a daily basis. I think music lends itself to talk about many things, and I thought I should talk about this. It just sort of happened; it wasn't really a huge thing that I had to think about. It was just ... time for me to do it."
If Saadiq's career were a puzzle, it would probably be one in which the pieces fit into one another not easily, but methodically, and when completed, might reveal a music world covered in his indelible fingerprints. He served as executive producer on Solange's celebrated 2016 record A Seat at the Table (Saadiq also co-wrote and played bass on the Grammy Award-winning single "Cranes in the Sky") and is credited for co-writing the Academy Award-nominated song "Mighty River" alongside performer Mary J. Blige from the 2017 film Mudbound. He's produced John Legend's Christmas record, he's collaborated with Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, and Elton John, and has composed scores for Marvel's Netflix series, Luke Cage, and, more recently, HBO's Insecure. Perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments is co-writing the sexiest song in the history of music, D'Angelo's thirst ballad "Untitled (How Do You Feel)," a song written in just two hours after Saadiq wandered into Electric Lady Studios looking for a joint, a request D'Angelo happily sparked up and the rest is glistening abs, er, history.
It should be noted, too, that Saadiq's irrefutable six degrees of A-list separation includes Detroit. Both he and D'Angelo were rotating members of the Ummah, a production collective comprised of A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, as well as legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla. From 1996-2000, the group produced remixes, as well original tracks by Mariah Carey, Busta Rhymes, Whitney Houston, and the Roots. When asked, Saadiq says Detroit has a history that dates back to his childhood, and, recently, has involved frequent run-ins with Motown great Smokey Robinson.
"Detroit and Motown are a huge part of who I am, really," Saadiq says. "People like Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson — well, I see Smokey quite a bit. Smokey visits me in the studio. He works here a lot at my studio in North Hollywood. Every time I see him, I never really get used to it."
And in what can only be considered one of the most humblest of humblebrags ever, Saadiq says he bumped into Diana Ross at his studio the other day.
"That was a trip."
Raphael Saadiq will perform wsg Jamila Woods and DJ Duggz at 7 p.m on Tuesday, Feb. 18 at the Majestic Theatre; 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com. Tickets are $35+.
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