A popular maxim in music is that an artist’s second album is the hardest album they’ll ever make. The reasoning behind that is quite understandable; an artist has their entire life to make the first. But what’s the maxim for an artist’s first album in seven years? Or the maxim for an artist making a statement in a career defined by musical statements that define eras and influence present-day luminaries like Kendrick Lamar and Solange? For Raphael Saadiq, a man whose career is the definition of success and influence, the challenge now is, quite simply, finding a challenge. And in speaking with Raphael, you quickly understand that challenge is internal; a challenge facing many great musicians who have done it all but consider themselves a work-in-progress.
“I don’t want to be judged as just someone who plays a particular style of music or with specific people,” Raphael reflects. “I want to compete with whoever, across all genres.”
Raphael’s challenge is seemingly completely removed from music. The past seven years have seen him receive accolades for his music on 2017’s period drama, Mudbound, while also making compositions for HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s Step Sisters. At the same time, music reached a songwriting zenith driven by daring artists who, in many cases, were finding their voices and musical directions in Raphael’s music. For a man with nothing to prove, Raphael’s only question mark is himself.
“This project is a compilation of life experiences between family, addiction, and a lot of different things that I purposefully never really talked about or wrote about,” Raphael says. “Over the past 6-7 years, that’s changed and I’ve been writing music that highlights some of the things that I do best like playing bass and coming up with chords.”
In approaching these topics, Raphael also enters a new chapter in his career, one in which a new demographic of listeners who are just now discovering the silkiness of Percy Sledge, the luxurious gravel of Howlin’ Wolf, or the assertiveness of John Lee Hooker, look to him as the embodiment of a more “pure” bygone era. Raphael isn’t fazed by this, responding the only way you’d imagine a musician would who’s written for D’Angelo and Erykah Badu and who counts Stevie Wonder as a close friend:
“I feel like you can’t really worry too much about the younger generation, they have to worry about you. I’m not going to give them any special attention,” Raphael says assertively. “The whole time I’ve been making music, I’ve been making music for nobody but me. But luckily for me, people liked the music I was making.”
Raphael Saadiq will be performing at the The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2018. His next album, the fifth solo album of his career, is slated for release later this year.
BrightestYoungThings: June 22 marked the 25th year anniversary of Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Son of Soul album, and shortly after it was released you said that with that album the group embodied, “the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.” Since that album your career has gone in many different directions, including music scores for movies and TV shows. How does your new album fit into the diverse narrative of your career and does it bridge together the varied experiences you’ve had as a musician?
Raphael Saadiq: I think this is a standalone project, and while I think we can always have bridges to different moments in our life, this project is a compilation of life experiences between family, addiction, and a lot of different things that I purposefully never really talked about or wrote about. Over the past 6-7 years, that’s changed and I’ve been writing music that highlights some of the things that I do best like playing bass and coming up with chords. Scoring [for TV shows] has opened me up a little bit more; I’ve always been into orchestral music and the experience of being around talented song composers and arrangers has weaved itself into this project. But again, this project isn’t a focal embodiment of that
After recording Instant Vintage, The Way I See It, and making music with Tony! Toni! Toné! and Lucy Pearl, you just come to know yourself better than you thought you would. After 15 years, I really know where I want to take this album, and I think this album will be compiled of music that you might recognize but jumped at in a different way.
BrightestYoungThings: Since your last album in 2011, you’ve really been in tune with music being released by other pioneering artists; you were the executive producer for Solange’s 2016 Seat at the Table and you’ve spoken about your affinity for Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly. People always say that your musical direction is ahead of the curve, but it sounds like the work of artists like Solange, like Kendrick Lamar, artists that have found success in speaking to the narratives of struggle, addiction, and personal triumph, have made it acceptable for you to explore those same topics in your upcoming album.
Raphael Saadiq: Yeah, in a way. I’ve never thought of it in that way. I think it’s always been out there. I come from a Blues-oriented family and grew up on on artists like Howlin’ Wolf who spoke of those topics. That discussion has always been a makeup of music but people just don’t talk about it as much. In a commercial aspect, it hasn’t been at the forefront but for an artist to sing with some type of pain it makes personal. I want my music to feel like me, and it has to respond to me. I was recently listening to America’s “A Horse with No Name” and it reminded me of the first time I heard it when I was in kindergarten; I remember I was in my mom’s 1966 [Chevrolet] Nova and just hearing the tune and the lyric “a horse with no name.” It made no sense to me but the acoustic guitar, the bass, and the tone of the singer’s voice stuck with me.
To me, when I listen to any great artist with a great song, you want it to translate to the stage and to the people the same way and that’s what I feel this new record has done for me. I think it’ll translate to the stage really well.
BrightestYoungThings: A lot of artists have been influenced by you and have tried to emulate your sound in their own way. As you look back on the seven years since your last album, and with a new album around the corner, do you take any inspiration from the younger generation, especially when it comes to live performances?
Raphael Saadiq: I hear people say they’re influenced by me, but I don’t really know that for sure. I’m not really trying to do anything that anyone is doing right now, I just feel like I should give myself and the audience the experience to be who I am at this point in my career. But at the same time, I do love hearing a song from Daniel Caesar that’s a real song. I think everybody can appreciate a real song, and that’s very inspiring. It’s great to know that there are other artists out there producing amazing work and competing with you on that merit. That’s what the music industry was created on; back in the day you had artists going back and forth trying to outdo each other with the quality of the work and it inspired you to be better.
When I bring up people like Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Daniel Caesar, or even a Drake and even Kanye [West], you see people that are trying to have people actually hear them and listen. And for that, I think that’s a great energy for the industry and the audience. I do feel that R&B needs to give more people the experience that hip hop does.
BrightestYoungThings: What do you mean by that?
Raphael Saadiq: When you go to an [R&B] show, there is no real experience or production. It’s not like you’re doing a Coachella, or a Bonnaroo, or a Pitchfork; you’re not giving people a real experience. I think people need to invest in making a real production, and it needs to be more of an experience. That’s why I did a 60’s record [2008’s The Way I See It], to show that I’m not just R&B, that I’m music. I don’t want to be judged as just someone who plays a particular style of music or with specific people. I want to compete with whoever, across genres. I think that’s what makes R&B strong because you didn’t have artists like Percy Sledge competing somebody from Louisiana; Percy Sledge was competing with people from Europe and other parts of the world.
That’s always been my goal. I’m in the music industry, and I want to play all the things my instruments say I can do.
BrightestYoungThings: It’s interesting you say that because I grew up listening to music that you either created or inspired. But there is a whole new younger demographic that will hear your music for the first time. How do you connect with that crowd? How do you cater or introduce your work to a new fan base while connected with people who’ve followed your career for over 15 years?
Raphael Saadiq: I think you talk to them about it and try to educate them, but at the same time you can’t give them too much of it. You have to make [new listeners] want to go back and listen to your earlier material; you have to make them interested in what you do. It’s funny because in the past few years I’ve been hearing more soul music coming from places like Poland and Russia than I do here. I feel like you can’t really worry too much about the younger generation, they have to worry about you. I’m not going to give them any special attention. The whole time I’ve been making music, I’ve been making music for nobody but me. But luckily for me, people liked the music I was making. I didn’t know much about distribution or promotion. I also think the younger demographic is really sharp, they may be processing my music in a way that I haven’t.
I remember before I made The Way I See It, I saw something on social media where a 15-year-old girl posted a video of her singing a song by The Delfonics. I remember seeing that and thinking “wow,” and that’s what made me go forward into making a ‘60s record. That showed me that you can’t treat young people like they don’t know because they might already know. You don’t have to dummy it down for them, and you don’t have to pretend like you’re one of them because that’s not what they want.