Raphael Saadiq encourages everyone to look deep inside on Jimmy Lee, his first album in eight years. The self-produced work pays tribute to his brother, who died in the ’90s from a heroin overdose after learning about his HIV diagnosis.
While a handful of intricate compositions hint at his brother’s battle with addiction, Saadiq doesn’t dwell solely on seeking healing for his sibling’s memory. The soul maverick opts to make a case for restoration, not only for himself but for others too.
Beginning with “Sinners Prayer,” an emotional cry out to the Most High, Saadiq recognizes the imperative need to fall into the arms of God for true forgiveness. Throughout the spiritual’s haunting chorus, the desperate conviction is heard upfront in his slender vocals while indomitable background shouts echo in a call-and-response.
On “So Ready,” Saadiq fashions a fuzzy, Stevie Wonder vibe and admits how his ‘so foolish’ wrongdoings attributed to his woman’s broken heart. In a laid-back tone, Saadiq engages in cool jazz on “This World is Drunk,” a third-person narrative that underlines a recovering alcoholic’s journey to sobriety before an emotional relapse. “Look at this idiot / Don’t know he’s been set up to fall / Can’t find the truth in any friend / And all he ever does is want drugs,” he sings.
On “Something Keeps Calling,” his comeback lead single, Saadiq finds his back against the wall when a plethora of hardships eats away at his sureness to survive. The sparse guitar pricks toward the end give an ode to his Total-helmed track “Kissing You.”
The subject of substance abuse comes up again on “Kings Fall,” a guilt-sick piece that has a wafting flute melody almost adjacent to Future’s 2017 standout “Mask Off.” Beyond the airy production, Saadiq sobs over the fact addiction can cause one to risk losing everything, including a place as patriarch. “My eyes roll, and I’m scared / I find myself lyin’ back in the bed / I’m hiding out, I keep the blinds close / I can see witches flyin’ everywhere,” he sings.
“I’m Feeling Love,” Saadiq notes his dependency doesn’t rely on street drugs but by the high he receives from the affection of his lady. His voice alternates from appeasingly steady to disturbingly low as he defines his intoxicating love behind a menacing drum pattern. “You are my rehab, the only needle that I have / Injections every day, vein to vein I’m here to stay / I’m drowning in good love, the only space I need to grow,” he sings.
Saadiq struts down memory lane in a self-righteous way on “My Walk,” before he humbles himself on his march down a Southern church aisle with Reverend E Baker on “Belongs to God.” Then, he examines the plight of those who are near death (or deceased) by dint of their own vices on “Glory to the Veins.”
Saadiq challenges the legal system for his fellow Black men on “Rikers Island.” His emotionally-charged appeals on the behalf of lawful (and unlawful) prisoners wouldn’t sound as credible without the harrowing vocals of the choir in the background. On “Rikers Island Redux,” Daniel J. Watts, an acclaimed Broadway actor and storyteller renders a poignant spoken word that zeroes in on several open compound words that reference “mass,” including the mass incarceration of Black men.
“Rearview,” the self-analyzing final score, Saadiq and his uncredited guest, Kendrick Lamar, elicits a thought-provoking tone for listeners to actively discover a self-fulfilling path in life for themselves. Like an overkill of hand-written sticky notes on a wall, Saadiq reiterates over and over in an inhuman cadence that “your life is in your rearview.”
Overall, Jimmy Lee is one of the purest confessions to come out this year. Like many noteworthy concept albums, this 39-minute work won’t get its proper acclaim in one take. In fact, one might have to be kneeled at an altar to truly experience a revival in his or her life.
Rating: 7.8 out of 10
Standout Tracks: “I’m Feeling Love,” “Something Keeps Calling,” and “So Ready”