Raphael Saadiq’s had a hand in a remarkable amount of landmark r&b over the past 30 years, though you may not know it — from his family band Tony! Toni! Toné! in the early ‘90s, through his role in the supergroup Lucy Pearl, and his work on records from D’Angelo’s groundbreaking Voodoo (he co-wrote “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” to Solange’s A Seat At The Table (he co-wrote “Cranes In The Sky”). His solo work has flown more under the radar, undeservedly, and Jimmy Lee, his first set since 2011’s excellent Stone Rollin’, is his most potent album to date.
At moment when American culture in general seems disturbingly drugged — less to celebrate or seek enlightenment than to just stay numb — these addiction laments, cautionary tales and mass-incarceration protest jams feel brave and necessary. From the chilling ‘70s soul majesty of “Kings Fall,” to the Last Poets-style testifying of Daniel J. Watts on “Rikers Island Redux” and the David Bowie-esque Kendrick Lamar collab “Rearview,” it’s a masterpiece of an LP.
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But the song that haunts most is “This World Is Drunk,” a boozing anti-anthem about a man’s struggle with substance abuse that may or may not be about one of the family members Saadiq has lost over the years (the album is named for a brother who overdosed in the ‘90s). With nephew “Sir” Dylan Wiggins providing atmospheric keys, Saadiq conjures the intimacy of a Prince piano ballads over a looping, live-sounding kit-drum beat, as verses nail the sad desperation of a backsliding ex-con who can’t get a leg up on the outside. In the multi-tracked chorus, Saadiq croons like a ‘50s r&b vocal group, “This world is drunk and the people are mad” and you don’t know if he means it figuratively or literally, subjectively or objectively. The performance pulses with the sort of complex empathy Marvin Gaye radiated on What’s Goin’ On, and it’s the kind of music we could use more of right now.
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