'We can still be uplifted, that's what I really want people to leave with,' says the R&B singer and producer

By Marcus J. Moore
August 21, 2019 at 02:56 PM EDT
Aaron Rapoport

Raphael Saadiq’s life has been marked by addiction. The second youngest of 12 children, he’s seen a sister struggle with substance abuse and a brother so tormented by a drug habit that it drove him to suicide. But it was another of Saadiq’s siblings, Jimmy Lee, who’s had the biggest impact on him. Jimmy Lee was also an addict — he died from a heroin overdose at the age of 42 — but Saadiq says that his brother, who was 14 years older, was fun, witty, and smiling, even after he had contracted HIV from sharing needles. “I always tried to stop people from disrespecting him,” Saadiq, 53, tells EW. “There was always someone saying something negative about him because of his addiction. At the time I didn’t really know why I was doing it.”

Fast-forward to 2017: Saadiq, a year removed from executive producing Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table, began reflecting on Jimmy Lee’s life and what his brother must’ve been going through mentally at the time. He then wrote a song called “Sinners Prayer” from the imagined perspective of Jimmy Lee, where he pleads for God’s help and his family’s understanding. Eventually, Saadiq decided to make an entire album dedicated to his late brother’s memory. In its finished form, Jimmy Lee — Saadiq’s first solo effort in eight years — offers a wide-ranging glimpse into Jimmy’s addiction and its many side effects.

Though Jimmy is the album’s central figure, Jimmy Lee (out Aug. 23) is largely about different kinds of addictions and how tough they are to break. “The thing I thought about really was dieting, trying to eat different foods and trying to eat clean,” Saadiq says of the record’s concept. “I would do it for a while but then I’d just fall off track. Then I started thinking about people who are addicted to drugs, like my brother, and how much people wanted him to stop, and I figured I couldn’t even stop doing some of the things I was doing when it came to food. People don’t realize that addiction can take over your entire life. This is a world epidemic. I stayed in that space and I didn’t come back out until I was done [recording the album].” 

For Saadiq, the toughest part wasn’t writing songs about his late brother, but having to play the LP for Jimmy Lee’s son, J.J. “That’s when me and my nephew had to look each other in the eye,” Saadiq says. “I was okay with making it, but when I was done and I brought his son into the studio and I played the record, it was really hard.” However, J.J. approved of what his uncle had accomplished and, according to the singer, is now “super excited to see his father’s name everywhere.”

Overall, Saadiq hopes Jimmy Lee becomes a springboard to larger discussions about addiction. “I decided to just call it Jimmy Lee, but it’s really me saying everyone has a Jimmy Lee in their lives, or some Jimmy Lee inside of them,” he says. “In America, as soon as addiction happens to you, you’re an outcast, you’re a nobody, you’re a smoker, you’re a crackhead. I want people to be able to take a deep breath and just hear me. If you’re struggling with addiction, whatever it may be, I don’t want you to be so hard on yourself. Love yourself and try to think about getting right. Also talk to your kids, talk to everybody about what’s out there, the temptations, whether you’re becoming an artist or an athlete or a politician or a student. We can still be uplifted, that’s what I really want people to leave with.” 

This and more from Saadiq, who broke down the inspiration and creative process behind album singles “Glory to the Veins” and “Something Keeps Calling”:

You’re Not Alone

Before Saadiq named his new album Jimmy Lee, he titled it Glory to the Veins after the record’s 10th song. “But then a friend of mine liked Jimmy Lee because it was more personal,” Saadiq recalls. The song “Glory to the Veins” is literally about that: It honors those who are struggling with addictions, and lets them know they’re not alone in trying to get better. “It’s saying glory to the people who went through this addiction, like much love to them,” Saadiq says. “Because everything runs through our veins — blood, drugs, everything, glory to it.” 

The Beat Could’ve Been in a Video Game

“Glory To The Veins” came from a session between he and his long-time collaborator, Charlie Brungardt. The two launched a video game company in 2007 called IllFonic, and were in the studio working on music for new titles when Brungardt pressed play on this incredibly dark track, with its bleak acoustic guitar chords and plodding drums. “I was like, ‘Ah, I gotta have that!” Saadiq recalls. “It was just grimey. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘It’s a world epidemic, and the whole world is in it.’” From there, he talked about the joy that his brother showed despite his challenges (“I lost a brother to AIDS, still he laughed every day”) and how he wouldn’t tread the same path. “I had the opportunity to go down that road so many times because of where I grew up, because of the industry I’m in,” Saadiq tells EW. “I see the door but I’m not going in. I wasn’t gonna do no needles, no coke, none of that.”

There’s No Place Like Home

Saadiq wrote “Something Keeps Calling” in his mother’s house in Sacramento. “I took my portable studio to her house and sat at the table,” he says. “She would see me work. I’d have my headphones in and then I’d take them out so she could hear what I’m doing.” The track was written for his dear friend, retired professional basketball player Brian Grant, who struggled with opioid addiction. “He has Parkinson’s disease so he has anxiety challenges,” Saadiq says. “I was around him when he’d be okay and then he would binge, he would be missing, and then he would call me and apologize. I’d be like ‘You ain’t gotta apologize to me. I’m your boy forever, it don’t matter what you go through.’” The song is about the notion of wanting to do right, “but not tonight,” as he sings on it. “He’s doing good now,” Saadiq says of his friend. “He’s got a lot of love around him.” 

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