Raphael Saadiq, the famed singer, musician, producer, music supervisor and former member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, has worn many hats over the span of his nearly 40-year career. One thing he hasn't done is take time to unpack his own traumas. But recently, the Grammy-winner took a step back to process his past and now, he's using a new album to work through it.
Saadiq's latest album, Jimmy Lee, is named after Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose years ago after contracting HIV. By creating Jimmy Lee, Saadiq's first album in eight years, the artist says it's helped him confront a lot of his reeling thoughts — from the loss of Jimmy and other unresolved childhood traumas to America's system of mass incarceration.
"When I came along, Jimmy was, well, he was pretty much an addict at that time," Saadiq tells NPR's David Greene. "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."
As Saadiq looked back over his brother's life, he thought about how much he really didn't know Jimmy and it drove him to go down a "rabbit hole" of exploration on the topic of addiction. "The record is not really about just Jimmy Lee," he says, "It's more about everybody has a Jimmy Lee in their life, you know? It's universal."
As Saadiq explains, the album has a "dark filter" over it because of the opportunities lost in death. Saadiq has memories of visiting Jimmy a lot while Jimmy was in prison — "I just thought we were going to Disneyland on a weekend" — and not realizing the gravity of the situation until much later. Now, Saadiq is using his platform and this album to examine addiction from all sides. He sings about how the war on drugs has affected people like his older brother on "Rikers Island" and "Kings Fall" depicts the relationship between the dealer and the addict.
"I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know like, 'OK, you have a choice to go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to profit off you for free labor and it's enslaving your brain, your mind," Saadiq explains. "It's just taking so much away from you."
The artist himself admits he's tried drugs before, which he sings about on the track "Glory To The Veins." He recalls having to physically stop himself from going down that road.
"Once I left Tony! Toni! Toné! in '97, I was introduced to ecstasy," he says. "And the first time I take it, nothing happened. Next time, Boom! I was flying in the air! Then I thought about my brothers and my mother who had already lost four kids. I looked at my friend and said, 'Man, you know what?' and threw everything on the ground smashed it up. I said, 'I don't want you to have to call my mother and say she found me dead. They've suffered enough.'"
Saadiq spoke with NPR's David Greene about the message of Jimmy Lee and the emotional toll of creating it. Hear their aired conversation at the audio link.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Musician Raphael Saadiq has named his new album "Jimmy Lee." That was the name of his older brother who died of a heroin overdose years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGS FALL")
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Even when I'm clean, I'm still a dope fiend. Everyone is always trying to tell me something. I wake up, I feel things crawling, but nobody wants to see a strong man falling.
GREENE: Saadiq was part of the popular R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! in the '90s. He went on to a solo career after that. When he came to our studios here in LA, he told me that his new album "Jimmy Lee" is helping him confront a lot in his life, including the loss of his older brother, who was 15 when Saadiq was born.
SAADIQ: When I came along, Jimmy was - well, he was pretty much an addict at that time. 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 mean, I didn't know anything about, you know, heroin. So I started looking back over his life and my life with him, and I thought about how much I really didn't know him. I didn't get a chance to talk to him about addiction.
But since then I have a lot of friends. And, you know, I'm a musician, so, you know, I've seen so much, you know, growing up. I just start making this record. I went down the rabbit hole. 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.
GREENE: And it sounds like you've spent years trying to understand him.
GREENE: And is this album like almost reconnecting with him for you?
SAADIQ: It's - this album is - I would definitely say it's a reconnection. I've never got any therapy about it because, you know, sometime, people think they don't need therapy. I still haven't had it. I think this record is a part of the therapy because I actually lost two brothers. I lost Desmond. I was, like, 17. He took his life with a double barrel shotgun at my dad's house. Being that my dad had a janitorial service, and he was, like, really hardcore, strict dude, when it happened, and they took the body, me, him and one of my other brothers cleaned everything up.
GREENE: Oh, God.
SAADIQ: We just did it. We didn't think about it. We just did it. And then I also lost my brother Alvie when I was 7. He was murdered. And I lost a sister in a car accident. So I felt like music was keeping me really strong. I guess there's one thought I used to have is - I call it a happy hour, like when people out drinking beer. I've always had this thought of me sitting with my brothers at a bar, you know, having an IPA and just talking and them just making jokes about me singing, you know.
Like, it would be funny to them. They would take me serious, but they would probably, you know, you know, throw you on the ground, slap you, box you. You know, so all of those things I always missed. And so this record made me think about all the - a lot of other people who don't have this platform to talk about it.
GREENE: Raphael Saadiq is using this platform to really examine addiction. He sings about how the war on drugs has affected people like his older brother. This song is called "Rikers Island."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIKERS ISLAND")
SAADIQ: (Singing) The judge sits in the high chair while the family sits and prays hoping judge and jury that all 12 will vote their way.
GREENE: I mean, the song seems to be, obviously, grappling with how the criminal justice system affects black people. Do you feel like the system has taken the wrong approach to people who struggle with addiction?
SAADIQ: Yeah. I just feel like - I mean, if you look at marijuana is now legal. And you have people probably still behind bars for marijuana. I feel like you should let all those people go. I don't think that they care about the crime that you committed. You just, you know, you just - you're just a number, making money off you. I just - I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know, like, OK, you have a choice to go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to profit off of you for free labor. And it's enslaving your brain, your mind. And it's just - it's just taking so much away from you. And as a kid, I used to visit Jimmy.
GREENE: He was in prison a lot.
SAADIQ: He was in prison a lot. And, you know, growing up in the hood, people think going to prison is almost being a celebrity. It's sort of praised like that. You know, like, if you look at the culture of wardrobe and, you know, it's like people dress like they're in jail.
GREENE: So did you think you were going to - like, your brother was doing something cool early on...
SAADIQ: I just...
GREENE: ...When you would go visit him?
SAADIQ: ...Thought he was - I just thought we were going to Disneyland on the weekend. Then I said, like, hey, let's go. Let's roll. Let's ride. He's like, I can't go nowhere. He was smiling. You know, like, I can't go. I'm locked up. I can't leave. And that's when I looked at everybody in the family, like, he's not a celebrity. He's locked up. He can't - who wants to be here? There's too many dudes here for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIKERS ISLAND")
SAADIQ: (Singing) Children home with no fathers, and they don't even know why. Mother can't explain it - the family visits, that's all we're seeing.
GREENE: You've said over the years that even though you've gone through some really tough things, you don't have to wear it on your sleeve.
SAADIQ: On your sleeve.
GREENE: And your music wasn't about it. But now you're not just wearing it on your sleeve. I mean, you're...
SAADIQ: It's about it.
GREENE: You're naming an album, it's all about it. Like, what is - what has happened that makes you just want to use music now to confront that?
SAADIQ: I didn't know that I was doing it at first. You know, I just was in a dark space myself, you know? Like, maybe like in - once I left Tony! Toni! Tone! in '97, I was introduced to ecstasy, to pills, right? And I'd never done a drug. And the first time I take it, you know, nothing happened. Next time, boom, like I was flying in the air, you know?
And then I thought about my brothers and my mother who had already lost four kids. I looked at my friend and said, man, you know what? - threw everything on the ground, smashed it up and say, bro, I don't want you to have to call my mother and say she found me dead. They've suffered enough. And I don't want to have to call your parents and tell them that I found you dead. And that was the end of that.
GREENE: You were close. I mean, you could have gone down that...
SAADIQ: I could've went...
GREENE: ...That road.
SAADIQ: ...Down the other road. Who knows what chemical make you react a different way that you just go and it's just, that's it. That's why the record sounds dark. I some really dark moments myself. And that's sort of how my life has been. When you see me up, there is like a really dark filter over me, sometime, because I didn't really get that chance to - you know, to just hang out with the bros and just kind of like, you know, share what I do. You know, I get to play all over the world. And I just thought it would have been really nice and to, like, you know, just to just have a IPA with all my brothers, you know?
GREENE: Raphael Saadiq, it's real, real pleasure talking to you.
SAADIQ: And you, too. Thank you.
GREENE: Thanks a lot for coming in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WALK")
SAADIQ: (Singing) I've been good and I've been bad in every way.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singin) On my walk.
GREENE: Raphael Saadiq. His new album is called "Jimmy Lee," and it's out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.