Raphael Saadiq, "Jimmy Lee" (Columbia Records)
"Jimmy Lee" is a stirring album combining Raphael Saadiq's trademark vintage soul sounds with moving gospel, disquieting soundscapes and closing triad of tunes that pulls no punches in addressing social ills and personal doubts.
Saadiq's family losses to addictions and other tragedies — "an unfortunate string of mishaps would eventually take the lives of three brothers and a sister" — were mentioned already on the lead track of his 2002 solo debut, "Instant Vintage," but "Jimmy Lee," named after one of his late siblings, deepens and expands the references and connections in songs and stories about decisions, fates and outcomes.
Opener "Sinners Prayer" details hardships and anxiety with barely a sliver of hope while "So Ready" puts a funky bass line on top of a thick click track amid queries like "Can someone heal my soul?" Despair is everywhere and even a brief mid-album oasis — "I'm Feeling Love" — seems to come with a poisoned well.
Both the unrelenting "My Walk" and the hypnotic "Glory to the Veins" are heartrending, made even more so by mentions of Jimmy Lee and another of Saadiq's deceased brothers.
The striking "Rikers Island" and a follow-up monologue by actor Daniel J. Watts pull no punches in expressing the injustices of the prison system and society at large — "Wake up, America, and hurry." Along with "Rearview," featuring Kendrick Lamar and reflections like "How can I change the world but can't change myself," they form a powerful statement sounding like an update of Marvin Gaye's "What Going On."
Raphael Saadiq's albums, collaborations and productions are typically top tier but his ability to connect the personal with the universal turns "Jimmy Lee" into a career milestone and places it notches above the rest of the field.