“The record is not really about just Jimmy Lee. It’s more about everybody has a Jimmy Lee in their life, you know? It’s universal,” Saadiq said about his new album.
An NPR profile of singer/producer Raphael Saadiq looked at the painful family history that informed his new album, Jimmy Lee.
The solo release—the first in eight years for the former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman/bassist, who’s also produced songs for John Legend, Mary J. Blige and Solange Knowles—is a “little darker” than previous efforts, according to Saadiq, who drew from his brother’s life and death from a drug overdose in the 1990s for its title and lyrics.
In the interview with NPR, Saadiq hoped that his brother’s story might resonate with others in similar situations.
“The record is not really about just Jimmy Lee,” he said. “It’s more about everybody has a Jimmy Lee in their life, you know? It’s universal.”
As a feature on Saadiq in the New York Times noted, his family life was marked by repeated tragedies: an older brother, Alvie Wiggins, was murdered in 1973 during an argument with a family member, while another brother, Desmond, took his own life in 1987 after battling drug dependency.
The album’s namesake, Jimmy Lee Baker, succumbed to heroin addiction after contracting HIV, while Saadiq’s sister, Sarah, was killed when her vehicle came into the path of a police chase in 1991.
Though the album is titled Jimmy Lee, the songs “are a reference to everything,” Saadiq told the New York Times, adding, “I couldn’t name it after all of them.” It’s also a departure of sorts from the polished soul and R&B that has defined his body of work as a band member, producer and solo artist. “It’s probably the most honest record I’ve made,” he explained. “A lot of it relates to me. It was like a mirror.”
But in titling the record Jimmy Lee, whom Saadiq spent more time with as a child than some of his other siblings—his father, a former boxer and blues guitarist, had 14 children by various women, including Saadiq’s mother, Edith James—the singer found a reference point for addressing a wider canvas of issues, from his own childhood to addiction and the war on drugs.
“When I came along, Jimmy was, well, he was pretty much an addict at that time,” Saadiq told NPR. “But being a kid, you don’t know what an addict is. So, I saw him as being pretty normal. I might have thought maybe he was an alcoholic or something… I didn’t know anything about heroin.”
Saadiq’s experiences with his brother, which included frequent visits while he was behind bars (“I just thought we were going to Disneyland on a weekend,” he recalled), gave him perspective on the subject of addiction and the narcotics trade, and how it still impacts people like his brother. This record, said Saadiq, was his chance to give others the tools and information that his brother lacked—and in doing so, to help put to rest some of his memories of his brother’s difficult life.
“I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know, like, ‘Okay, you have a choice to go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to to profit off you for free labor, and it’s enslaving your brain, your mind,'” he said. “It’s just taking so much away from you.”
Jimmy Lee is available now from Columbia Records.