R&B Legend Raphael Saadiq Transforms Tragedy Into a Beautifully Honest Return on Jimmy Lee

An ode to his late brother.

Aaron Rapoport

After seven years of scoring films, appearing as himself on the Netflix Marvel series, Luke Cage, and producing records for artists like John Legend, Raphael Saadiq returned with Jimmy Lee. This dark and powerful blues-infused R&B album is deeply personal for Saadiq, drawing on tragic tales from his life. 

Since founding R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! in the early 90s, Saadiq has been struggling to find the right words to express the pain of his past. 

On Jimmy Lee, a record about addiction named after his oldest brother, Saadiq sticks to his guns with his natural old-school R&B wrapped in a sorrowful package. Thirteen years apart in age, Saddiq never saw his brother as the stereotypical heroin addict. He saw, instead, a fun, loving, and complex individual struggling with something deeper and darker than he could ever understand as a child.  

“Jimmy Lee was pretty much a hero to me. A lot of times he wasn’t present; he was in and out of jail, so when he would come around I was super excited to see him,” Saadiq says. “I really held him up in a high regard. I feel like sometimes people who have addictions are looked at in a different light than they maybe should be. I saw him differently than everyone else, so I wrote this record not just about my brother, but a lot of my friends who deal with different types of addictions.” 

Jimmy Lee acts as the conversation Saadiq never got the chance to have with his brother before he was murdered by their sister’s boyfriend during a dispute over drug money. He’s spent years exploring the topic of addiction with close friends in the music industry who have struggled with addiction issues, which naturally lead him down the path of writing Jimmy Lee 

His brother Jimmy wasn’t his only inspiration — all three of his brothers were talented musicians and victims of addiction. 

“Desmond, who killed himself, was 18. I was 16. He never really got off drugs. He was messing with crack, but he had a job. He was a clean-cut kid. I don’t even know what happened but we came home one day and he had murdered himself in my dad’s house. He was the drummer and he didn’t really like music the way we did, but this is why I ended up making this record, too. I was thinking about what actually goes on through someone’s mind,” says Saadiq. 

After the death of his brother Desmond, Saadiq threw himself into music as a form of therapy. Twenty years later, his last living brother died from a drug overdose.  

During the writing stage of Jimmy Lee, Saadiq received the news that his sister had died in a car accident when a young kid being pursued by police jumped in front of her car. After that, music became all encompassing for Saadiq. The music quickly began to reflect Saadiq’s state of mind: heavy bass pounding beneath his youthful sounding vocals as they tell a resentful story. Not resentful towards the decisions that people in his life made, but toward the mental health issues that brought them to their tragic end. 

“I’ve always been running and hiding behind music, really. I never really wanted to talk about it because I wanted to give everyone else a good feeling that was around me. When people ask me, ‘Why now?’ I just never really knew how to sing about it. It’s not something easy to sing about.” 

After 30 years in the business, Saadiq has finally found the right way to talk about what he’s been dealing with his entire life. With Jimmy Lee, Saadiq sounds like himself but raw honesty shines through. It is literal and hits like a punch to the gut, but the beauty and incredible production outweigh the darkness. Jimmy Lee delicately and thoughtfully balances messages about the mind with grooving soul. Saadiq is back in full force and has something to say, so you better listen.