"I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know like, 'OK, you have a choice to

go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to profit off you for free labor and it's enslaving your brain," Raphael Saadiq says. Aaron Rapoport/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Aaron Rapoport/Courtesy of the artist

"I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know like, 'OK, you have a choice to go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to profit off you for free labor and it's enslaving your brain," Raphael Saadiq says.

Aaron Rapoport/Courtesy of the artist

Raphael Saadiq, the famed singer, musician, producer, music supervisor and former member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, has worn many hats over the span of his nearly 40-year career. One thing he hasn't done is take time to unpack his own traumas. But recently, the Grammy-winner took a step back to process his past and now, he's using a new album to work through it.

Saadiq's latest album, Jimmy Lee, is named after Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose years ago after contracting HIV. By creating Jimmy Lee, Saadiq's first album in eight years, the artist says it's helped him confront a lot of his reeling thoughts — from the loss of Jimmy and other unresolved childhood traumas to America's system of mass incarceration.

"When I came along, Jimmy was, well, he was pretty much an addict at that time," Saadiq tells NPR's David Greene. "But being a kid, you don't know what an addict is. So, I saw him as being pretty normal. I might have thought maybe he was an alcoholic or something ... I didn't know anything about heroin."

As Saadiq looked back over his brother's life, he thought about how much he really didn't know Jimmy and it drove him to go down a "rabbit hole" of exploration on the topic of addiction. "The record is not really about just Jimmy Lee," he says, "It's more about everybody has a Jimmy Lee in their life, you know? It's universal."

As Saadiq explains, the album has a "dark filter" over it because of the opportunities lost in death. Saadiq has memories of visiting Jimmy a lot while Jimmy was in prison — "I just thought we were going to Disneyland on a weekend" — and not realizing the gravity of the situation until much later. Now, Saadiq is using his platform and this album to examine addiction from all sides. He sings about how the war on drugs has affected people like his older brother on "Rikers Island" and "Kings Fall" depicts the relationship between the dealer and the addict.

"I feel like people are not educated at a young age to know like, 'OK, you have a choice to go behind bars and become a number and for somebody to profit off you for free labor and it's enslaving your brain, your mind," Saadiq explains. "It's just taking so much away from you."

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The artist himself admits he's tried drugs before, which he sings about on the track "Glory To The Veins." He recalls having to physically stop himself from going down that road.

"Once I left Tony! Toni! Toné! in '97, I was introduced to ecstasy," he says. "And the first time I take it, nothing happened. Next time, Boom! I was flying in the air! Then I thought about my brothers and my mother who had already lost four kids. I looked at my friend and said, 'Man, you know what?' and threw everything on the ground smashed it up. I said, 'I don't want you to have to call my mother and say she found me dead. They've suffered enough.'"

Saadiq spoke with NPR's David Greene about the message of Jimmy Lee and the emotional toll of creating it. Hear their aired conversation at the audio link.

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