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Raphael Saadiq Finally Put His Past on the Record

LOS ANGELES — “My first funeral, I was 7 years old,” Raphael Saadiq said. “They called my name: ‘Charlie Ray Wiggins, limousine three!’ I never liked limousines after that.”

He was sitting in a control room at his studio, Blakeslee Recording, surrounded by totems of the past — a trophy from the first talent show he won at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., an Amy Winehouse prayer candle and enough vintage guitars to stock three pawnshops.

Saadiq, 53, wore a pale-blue T-shirt and periodically tugged at his twists of hair. He was talking about family and addiction and loss, about a life marked by a string of tragedies, and about why it took him until now, more than two decades into his career, to bring these stories into his music.

His new album “Jimmy Lee,” out this week, is his first in eight years. It is named for his brother Jimmy Lee Baker, who overdosed in the 1990s after contracting H.I.V., but uses his story to tell a broader one about lives under pressure. It wasn’t Saadiq’s plan to make a concept album, let alone one that digs into stories this personal. But over the course of a few nights in this studio in early 2019, he began to hear the ghosts speak.

That first funeral was for his older brother Alvie Wiggins, who was murdered in 1973 in a dispute with a family member. Saadiq’s brother Desmond Wiggins, like Jimmy Lee Baker, struggled with addiction, and killed himself in 1987. Three years later, his sister Sarah backed out of her driveway and into the path of a police chase. Saadiq was working on the second album by his R&B band Tony! Toni! Toné! when he got the news that she had been killed; he walked back into the studio and sang “It Never Rains (in Southern California),” a yearning long-distance love ballad that would top the Billboard R&B singles charts in the fall of 1990.

None of this has ever been a secret. Saadiq has had a tattoo of Alvie, Desmond and Jimmy’s faces on his arm for 20 years. But from his time with the band he affectionately calls “The Tonys” up through his solo career — four albums between 2002 and 2011, each more joyous, and consummately crafted than the last — he’s always prioritized hooks and concision over self-expression.

“My compositions had to go farther than me,” he said. “I just thought about delivering.”

For two decades, he’s done it, over and over. As a producer, he’s pulled concise statements out of performers who often default to the diffuse, such as D’Angelo (“Lady” and “Untitled [How Does It Feel]”) and Solange (“Cranes in the Sky.”) But as one of relatively few major figures of the hip-hop age who grew up playing in bands, he’s just as adroit at leading from behind as a sideman, steering Mary J. Blige to an Oscar nomination (for “Mighty River,” from “Mudbound”) or playing bass behind Mick Jagger on a Grammy salute to Solomon Burke.

“Raphael manages to defy time by being continuously culturally and musically relevant,” said Rob Stringer, the chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment, which includes Columbia, the label releasing “Jimmy Lee,” adding, “he always has his finger on the pulse without ever being overexposed.”

Saadiq has been more underground than usual lately, writing music for films and TV, including the score for HBO’s “Insecure.” The work is gratifying because it involves producing music on time and to specification, a skill Saadiq takes pride in having cultivated: “They need a pink elephant on Sunday,” he said, “you’ve got to give it to ’em.”

As a solo artist, Saadiq has long been a master without a masterpiece for consensus to point to. “Jimmy Lee” could change that through sonic ambition alone. Several tracks have an icy Europop sheen, a nod to Saadiq’s past as an “early MTV kid” who dug Duran Duran and Level 42. The Kendrick Lamar feature “Rearview” finds Saadiq quavering on the chorus like David Bowie or the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. The choir on “Rikers Island” — 30-plus voices railing in blunt language against the mass incarceration of black men — is actually all Saadiq, multitracked to infinity.

Saadiq has always bent time-tested pop idioms into supple, modern shapes. But he’s never populated his tracks with desperate characters on the run from themselves and the world’s harsh judgment, forever getting in their own way. The album title “is a reference to everything — I couldn’t name it after all of them,” he said, but Saadiq himself is a newly raw and vulnerable presence too.

“It’s probably the most honest record I’ve ever made,” he said. While he’s talking about a few people on the songs, “a lot of it relates to me. It was like a mirror.”

Saadiq’s father, Charlie Wiggins, was a former super-lightweight boxer who played blues guitar sang in a voice like Sam Cooke’s, but chose family and a steady job over a career in music. He worked for decades as a sheet metal man at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., but always kept a battered guitar and a little tweed Fender amplifier around.

Charlie had been married and divorced by the time he met Edith James, Saadiq’s mother. Collectively, his parents had 14 children, but Saadiq was the only child they had together. He came along late, when many of his siblings were grown. (His father would tease him, “You were a good mistake, but you were a mistake.”)

As a child, Saadiq often caught a ride between his families’ houses on the handlebars of his older brother Randy Wiggins’ bike. “He sang better than all of us,” Saadiq said of Randy. “That’s how I learned about the Delfonics and the Stylistics.”

Randy sang with Alvie in talent shows but never pursued music professionally, and is now retired after a long career with Kilpatrick’s Bakeries in Oakland. Asked in a phone interview about the present state of his falsetto, he offered an impromptu demonstration, singing the first few bars of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” into the phone in a voice that was high and powerful.

Saadiq was a child when Alvie was killed; he had more time with Jimmy Lee, a heroin addict who didn’t get along with their stepfather, Ed Nelson, Saadiq said, and would sometimes break into the Nelson house and steal whatever he could. “For me to title my album ‘Jimmy Lee’ — people in my family will wonder, Why him,” Saadiq said.

Saadiq said his brother Desmond also fell into addiction and shot himself in Saadiq’s father’s apartment, and matter-of-factly described the family cleaning up the aftermath. “We didn’t know what to do,” he said. “We just did it.”

Saadiq described himself as an observant kid. Witnessing his brothers’ travails informed his own decisions. Street life didn’t beckon him. “I never could have sold dope,” Saadiq said. “I didn’t think some dude my age could be my boss and tell me what to do.”

Instead, when he was still in grade school, he found his first professional music gig, backing the Gospel Messengers, who’d met as custodians at the hospital where Saadiq’s mother worked. At age 9, he became the bassist of his uncle Elijah Baker’s group, the Gospel Hummingbirds, and carried a stack of business cards identifying himself as such.

Oakland was a musical hotbed back then. Natalie Cole’s band lived around the corner from his mother’s house; once, at the supermarket, a preteen Saadiq encountered his idol, Larry Graham, the Sly & the Family Stone and Graham Central Station bassist, who was shopping in platforms and leather with a Lincoln Continental parked outside.

Saadiq spent hours in his room, teaching himself to play Graham’s busy bass lines — particularly “Pow” and “Release Yourself,” which Saadiq said were essentials for any bassist looking to sit in with a pickup band — as well as songs by the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Saadiq formed Tony! Toni! Toné! with his brother D’Wayne Wiggins and the drummer Timothy O’Brien at the end of the ’80s. Hip-hop had crews, R&B had groups, but neither one had bands; the skills they’d honed on the competitive Oakland garage-band circuit set them apart at the peak of the age of sampling. But Saadiq also sought out the Queens rappers A Tribe Called Quest and quizzed them about their gritty drum sound.

Tribe’s DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad contributed to the Tonys’ fourth album, “Sons of Soul,” and said watching them work out the song “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself” at a recording session in Trinidad inspired him to learn an instrument.

“He just said, ‘Yo, follow me,’” Muhammad said. “He started playing a bass line and singing — just humming, freestyling like a rapper. I was just staring at them — they had not said a word to each other but they all joined in and started playing.”

“Sons of Soul” yielded the Tonys’ biggest hit, the rollicking “If I Had No Loot.” Saadiq said he effectively left the band after that, although they made one more album together in 1996. He wasn’t, as he put it, “trying to be Bobby Brown or something” when he left. He hoped to go broader, not bigger.

“I wanted to be able to shoot from anywhere on the court,” he said. “I didn’t think it was just singing. I didn’t think it was just producing. If I was free to do anything I wanted to do? I’m my own best bet. I’ll bet on me all the time.”

On the 1995 soundtrack for John Singleton’s “Higher Learning,” the newly solo Raphael Wiggins is credited for the first time as “Raphael Saadiq.”

“I just wanted a little separation — some branding, different from the Tonys, different from a Wiggins,” he said. (He had become “Raphael” on an audition to play in Sheila E’s live band in the mid-80s.) Also, he was told an executive at PolyGram asked: “Who wants to hear an artist named Raphael Wiggins?”

He was not, for the record, trying to be Bobby Brown. His aspirations as a performer continued to be band-shaped. There was the unrecorded Lynwood Rose, whose various incarnations featured Saadiq playing bass alongside D’Angelo and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Muhammad. A less theoretical supergroup, Lucy Pearl — with Saadiq, Muhammad and Dawn Robinson, formerly of En Vogue — released one self-titled album, in 2000.

That same year, D’Angelo released his years-in-the-making second album “Voodoo,” a work of moody postmodern R&B that played mostly like deep-space transmissions from a nebula of Nag Champa smoke — except for the sensual, soaring “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the first indelible soul single of the 21st century, which happened to be the one track Saadiq co-wrote.

“I don’t think he gets credited enough. Raphael is not the type of person to look for credit,” said Muhammad, who added that it was Saadiq who first played him D’Angelo’s demo tape in a car in Manhattan in 1992.

“‘There’s Stevie, there’s Michael, there’s Marvin and then there’s D’Angelo,’” Muhammad remembered him saying. “What a setup, for a brand-new artist who was just walking around with a demo tape.”

When asked, toward the end of the day in North Hollywood, if he felt he’d been properly credited for his contributions to D’Angelo’s success, Saadiq answered, “I do,” and then he said “I do” again, and then he said he really didn’t worry much about it, and then he talked about it for a while longer.

Saadiq said that even D’Angelo has called him underrated.

“He says, ‘Man, I don’t feel like the whole world knows that you’re dope,’” Saadiq said, approximating his friend’s gravelly delivery.

Saadiq also said this was how he preferred it: “People aren’t watching until I hit ’em in the head with something like this album. I like to pick my punches, when I want to hit you at.”

“I’ve always been making music for me. Only for me,” he continued. “I understood how lucky and fortunate I was, for people to listen to me and like me and to buy a ticket to come see me — I knew that was very special, because I didn’t make the music for them.”

So where does the satisfaction come from? “Right here when it comes off your speakers. That is already the Grammy.”

Saadiq skipped the Grammy Awards in 2017, the year Solange won for a song he helped write. When it was suggested that “Jimmy Lee” is the kind of record that might mandate his attendance at next year’s ceremony, he laughed.

“Grammys are beautiful things,” he said. “I just think you have to start wanting to win it right here first, before it gets to them.”

He stood up, walked to the console, and stood with his arms outstretched, as if surveying an invisible kingdom on the other side of the control-room glass.

“When you feel it in here,” he said, “you should be feeling like, I just won.”

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