Raphael Saadiq is known above all for the bounty of stirring love songs and lively jams he has made for himself and others since the late '80s.
Less recognized are his tales of tragic figures struggling to make ends meet as their egos and vices respectively trip out and take hold, despite his breakthrough with one, Tony! Toni! Toné!'s "Little Walter," and a Grammy nomination for another, "Good Man." Saadiq's first LP since the latter hit takes the conflicted narratives to a higher level that is more concentrated and personal.
Jimmy Lee is titled after an older brother he idolized -- one of four siblings he has lost to tragedy.
"I love Jimmy, but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn," he seethes as he struts in "My Walk," a hip-hop blues number weaving humor and real-life horror to whomping effect.
In the downcast "Glory to the Veins," Saadiq laments, "I lost a brother to AIDS, still he laughed every day," indicating that a such-is-life outlook runs in the family.
Saadiq otherwise tends to sing from the perspective of a lost soul, making it all go down easy with some of the richest, impeccably sweetened music of his career.
He's wracked with concern about his daughter while staring down police in the pitch-black groove "Sinners Prayer," blithely observant of his destructive path in the liquid disco-funk of "So Ready," and is repentant but resigned in the churning "Something Keeps Calling." Just as unsettling is "I'm Feeling Love," loping funk in which he's a spaced cowboy, as high as his Larry Graham-style bass thump is low.
The point of view temporarily switches to third person in "This World Is Drunk" with Saadiq at his descriptive and compassionate best, and in "Rikers Island," he is as outspoken as ever, preaching against the school-to-prison pipeline like Bootsy Collins to an all-Ray Ray multi-tracked choir.
With the slamming of a cell door, "Rikers," like the majority of the surrounding songs, ends abruptly.
Short jolts of static ease most of the other track transitions.
Rather than come across as a masking tactic akin to explosion FX deployed by DJs who can't mix, the disruptions add to the urgency as the perspectives, moods, and styles shift.
Baker provides a joyous testimonial.
The brothers and sisters in arms, longtime partners (Thomas McElroy, Taura Stinson) and new associates (Brook D'Leau, Daniel Crawford) alike, play in service to the vision of one eminent artist, helping him convert grief to artistic brilliance.