Raphael Saadiq On Working With Kendrick Lamar and Why ‘Jimmy Lee’ Is the Best He’s Ever Felt About an Album


Raphael Saadiq has spent the last eight years working on projects for others, including playing bass guitar on Elton John’s The Diving Board, co-writing Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and composing music for HBO’s hit series Insecure. In 2018, he earned his first Academy Award nomination, alongside Mary J. Blige, for “Mighty River” from Mudbound

But the Grammy Award-winning artist who broke out as a member of R&B/soul trio Tony! Toni! Toné! hasn’t released a solo album since Stone Rollin’, in 2011. On Aug. 23, Saadiq will return with the intensely personal, self-produced Jimmy Lee (Columbia), which addresses the loss of his brother to addiction.

“When you’re on drugs, people don’t look at you in high regard,” says Saadiq. “But I always looked up to him. So if I could give his son a positive spin on the dad he never really had… it’s the best feeling I've ever had with any record."

Was your eight-year album break intentional?

After doing this for so long, I wanted to take time to strategize with management. I’d lost my dad two years before, so I wanted to hang out with my mother. Then it was about doing stuff like going out to eat, hanging out with friends. I’m always in the studio making music or talking and listening to music with people who drop by, so it really didn’t feel like eight years, to be honest. I was just living a regular life, not getting caught up in the whole industry. I’m not an industry dude, by far. 

So what clicked inside to let you know it was time again? 

My brother and other siblings I lost growing up are always on my mind. But this time, I went down the rabbit hole in a more positive way. I’ve seen close friends and other people with the same [addiction] issues as my brother in what’s become a world epidemic. It just came out of me. I guess I’m being used as his vessel. I always want to make love music and never really want to take anybody down this sad road. I wouldn’t have done this album if I couldn’t pull it off to where it would still be uplifting. People know me for songs like “Anniversary” and “Lay Your Head on My Pillow.” Those love songs actually were therapy for me.

You’re now co-managed by John Legend’s manager Ty Stiklorius of Friends at Work. How did that come about?

A few years back, there was a lot of betrayal by a lot of people working close to me — business managers — but I’ve moved forward. The lyrics in the album’s opening song, “Sinners Prayer,” [co-written with Taura Stinson] talk about that: “Fingers on the triggers aimed at my dome / they’re gunning for me with loaded tongues / But I’m just trying to get home.” I worked with John on his Christmas album and liked the way his career is handled. He’s his own brand. Ty and her husband Eric are a good, solid team. I’d pretty much been managing myself with a team around me.

Kendrick Lamar guests on the album’s closing track “Rearview.” What was it like working with him?

He stopped by one day and we listened to music, then he jumped on a couple of different records that I had. He’s just got this soulful feeling about his music. When I was going through all the BS with my last manager, Kendrick’s “Alright” was my go-to when I’d drive back to the Bay Area. That’s why I put him on the last track, because what I’m saying is there’s more life ahead of you than behind you. And Kendrick is the only person I knew that could speak to that.

Why do you think that R&B groups rarely exist today?

Because people don’t know how to get together anymore. That’s the number one issue. You can’t start a band like the Tonys if everybody’s going to get paid. 

It’s expensive to live in cities and everybody has bills so they can’t rent a spot and play. When we were doing it, we’d just go to a garage and bang it out. That’s why when I saw the Migos, I was excited because wow, it was three dudes. I hadn’t seen that in forever. I also love Tyler the Creator, he gets a lot of people together.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.