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R&B boundary-pusher Raphael Saadiq brings his personal new album 'Jimmy Lee' to Orlando

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Has Raphael Saadiq ever written a bad song? His style of music-making and his vision of soul music is tantalizing to the ear, not to mention the moneymaker and the feet. Whether part of infectious R&B hitmakers Tony! Toni! Toné! in the 1990s or out on his own, Saadiq belongs in the rarefied company of groove savants like Prince, Erykah Badu and Bilal. Simply put, neo-soul. And more. Like the aforementioned, Saadiq has his feet grounded in the music's roots, with his ears and eyes always searching out the ways ahead.

It's been eight years since his last release, and Saadiq's latest, Jimmy Lee, is bold, brilliant, beautiful and touching. Saadiq's inspiration for this moving body of songs was the loss of his brother to the disease of addiction. In a promotional film Saadiq recently explained, "The record is not really about just Jimmy Lee. It's more about everybody has a Jimmy Lee in their life, you know? It's universal."

And it's true. We all have friends and family who are struggling with substance abuse, and we all know someone who has managed to put it behind them for brighter futures. The album becomes not just casual listening, but something that stirs emotions that need to be faced. There's therapy in these melodies. The song cycle of Jimmy Lee is ultimately joyous, providing positive closure and a chance at healing.

In the run-up to his performance at the Plaza Live, Orlando Weekly got the chance to speak with Saadiq, a keen thinker, evident from the moment our conversation began. We chatted with him about the origins and inspiration of Jimmy Lee.

Orlando Weekly: It's been awhile since you've made a record and I imagine this one must have come from somewhere deep.

Raphael Saadiq: Well, at this point in my life and career, what's making a record all about? You take what you've learned, what you're about, and what you want to say. This one took a while because I had several things I was working on and the subject matter just stuck out to me. It felt like what I was about.

Not to be a preacher, but I talk about what I know and it's my family.

I love what you said about all of us having a 'Jimmy Lee' in our lives ...

It's not about the problem being just "your" or "their" problem, it's the other adults, the Jimmy Lees that Jimmy Lee hangs out with. When I started traveling, you begin to see it's not just in your world, but the world all around.

The music reflects this, especially on "My Walk." It's moving and unbelievable.

"My Walk" is more about how you're more than just a part of a footprint, making your way through the village of people. The peaks and valleys of life, and trying not to fear too many things and trying to live that way and figure out who are as you walk through this life. The pride and dignity of who you are. Sonically, I wanted to express a kind of Busta Rhymes energy.

Yeah, the song has a raw, kinetic energy with that hard synth stab. Then there's "Belongs to God," with the Rev. E. Baker. It's real powerful stuff that gets you out of your seat and onto your feet, gospel-meets-soul.

The Rev. E. Baker is my uncle. I grew up playing with him and called him and asked if he wanted to do something, and he had this idea of doing a Sam Cooke-type strong gospel number. A jump shot that gives the people something that feels great.

What do you want to tell us about this tour? What are we going to see?

It's going to be very freestyle, one hour and 45 minutes. Expect to hear a lot from my career both solo [and] with Tony! Toni! Toné!, some songs I wrote and produced for other people. A full gamut. A raw sound, big.

Looking forward to it, and hoping it won't be eight years till your next outing.

It won't. Ha!

This story appears in the Jan. 29, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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