Raphael Saadiq (real name Charles Ray Wiggins) is dressed in a pale blue suit with matching blue Adidas, laid back causally in a corporate swivel chair.
The fluorescent light of one of the many conference rooms at Multichoice’s HQ catches the corners of his black-tinted shades, behind which he keenly surveys me.
I get the impression that not even the smallest detail escapes Saadiq, as he speaks in a light, slow American drawl, and he takes a good few seconds before answering each of my questions thoughtfully.
I don’t blame him though, the subject matter that his new album, Jimmy Lee, deals with is as sensitive as it comes – an ode to his brother who overdosed on drugs when he was just a kid. Saadiq’s lyrical musings, decades later, are reflective of a musician in his prime who’s stepped back in time to deal with some unfinished business.
Tecla Ciolfi: I like that you approach the topic of addiction from a non-judgemental place on your new record Jimmy Lee. How does it feel to be sharing a story so personal to you?
Raphael Saadiq: I was in creative mode and I didn’t ever really think about how personal it was. I felt like all my music was pretty much personal, but I guess it wasn’t. I think this record went down the rabbit hole a little bit. I mean, you start writing, you start being creative and writing about addiction – and the people that you know that struggle with addiction – and then you start going song-by-song.
So honestly, I didn’t think that hard to write about it, not ‘til I was done. Once I was done I started thinking about where I was pulling that information from – that’s when I started to think about it more, during the promotional runs and the lives I was talking about.
TC: I watched an interview with you where you spoke about how your brother Jimmy, who the album is named after, used to bring you a new dog as a gift every now and then, but your mom kept dropping them off at the park. Was there ever a dog you got to keep? If so, what breed was he and what was his name?
RS: Yeah there was one dog. Well, she [his mother] actually liked the dogs. I think my mother was probably fed up with Jimmy. It didn’t have anything to do with the dogs, it was just a bad break for the dogs. I think she was frustrated about his [Jimmy’s] lifestyle and I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought he just wasn’t living at home.
We kept one dog named Caeser, he was a Labrador retriever. We actually kept two labs. My mother liked Labrador retrievers. She didn’t know the name of the dogs, but I knew that they were Labrador retrievers.
TC: While you were writing the album, were you ever insecure about people judging it against your previous work?
RS: I was very confident in the album that I was creating, but I always feel like people are going to judge you based on your last record, that’s how you end up making good records because you’re thinking about your last record and you want to live up to it. So it’s not that you’re nervous – but for me I just want to do a good job and make a record. I know people are going to base it on all your past work, that’s what I do to people too. Somebody puts out an album and then I’ll listen to the next album and go, “Mmmm they just gave up.” So if I say that about other people, then I’m [even more] hard on myself.
TC: It’s a very mixed album, gospel, old soul, R&B, a bit of electronic influences – I hear Anderson .Paak influences in the album too. Have the two of you ever met or collabed on anything?
RS: I know Anderson, he’s a good friend. We both love hip hop, we’re both from the church. He played drums in church, I played drums in church and I just think he understands the climate of music and sonics as I also do to. And most people who sing, you can sort of get lost in one thing. He’s a Tribe Called Quest fan too – so we’re both hip hop junkies and love beats and when you love beats and you’re a hip hop junkie you tend to take everything that you have and go different ways. And I’m the type of person that likes to diversify music – with gospel, funk, jazz, hip hop and classic R&B.
TC: The list of artists you’ve produced and collabed with is ridiculous but I have to ask about one in particular – what was working on Solange’s A Seat at the Table as an executive producer like?
When I work with different artists you always take something away. I like working with artists that you can learn something from. Solange is just a different unicorn. I think with her I spent more time taking about a lot of stuff that’s on the album. It was a really dark time for me when I was working with Solange but she was like a ray of light for me, so when I was done working with her I was trying to get my album done at the same time but she was like, “Nah I’mma beat you to it.”
TC: You have experienced so much loss in your life but you’ve been able to pour that into your music and it seems very cathartic. When I listen to Jimmy Lee it feels cathartic and I wanted to know if you see your music as a sort of therapy for you for everything that you have experienced. I feel like it’s very important to talk about things like that in this current social climate, where we’re dealing with toxic masculinity and that somehow being sensitive and showing emotion is weak.
RS: I have to be honest, I didn’t think about any of it while I was making the record. I guess if you live who you are and you’re honest with who you are, it’s a subject that we all need to talk about anyway. I needed to talk about my brother and some of the tragedies in my family’s life that I never dealt with. So I don’t think that I ever really talked about it in the media.
But it’s a conversation that we all need to have. The #MeToo movement is probably something that should’ve happened a long time ago, for men to really pay attention to women in every respectful way – especially in a professional way.