This Tiny Desk concert was part of Tiny Desk Fest, a four-night series of extended concerts performed in front of a live audience and streamed live on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
The first time Raphael Saadiq played Tiny Desk, “it was really a tiny desk.”
“And honestly we were kinda complaining about it,” Saadiq laughs, recalling that performance in 2009, back when hosting intimate little concerts behind Bob Boilen’s desk was still a fledgling idea at NPR Music. “Like, we kinda didn’t wanna do it,” he admits in hindsight. It wasn’t until the video-taped version of his set hit the Internet and began picking up views that the lightbulb went off for Saadiq, too. “It’s like probably the biggest streaming I ever had, so it’s kinda good to be back — not kinda good; it’s really good to be back.”
As he tells this story, exactly one decade later, Saadiq’s return to a slightly bigger Tiny Desk — to close out NPR’s live-streamed Tiny Desk Fest — coincides with the biggest record of his career. Named for one of three brothers who succumbed to addiction, Jimmy Lee is his most personal, most vulnerable, most fearless work yet, and it comes at a point, more than 30 years into his career, when Saadiq has nothing left to prove or lose.
This is the same man, after all, who lit the fuse for soul’s popular revival as the lead for Tony! Toni! Tone!, at a time when black bands bordered near-extinction. Then he led an entire generation of artists to the well and made them drink. In addition to a solo discography that cakewalks backward through the latter half of 20th-century funk and soul, his production credits read like a score card of black music MVPs over the last 20 years (D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Ledisi, John Legend, Solange). If he’s made it look effortless, that’s because, sometimes, it has been.
Take the time when he was walking around the East Village in New York one day out of the blue. “I was like, let me see where can I get a joint from,” as he recalls during our post-performance conversation. The thought led him to Electric Lady Studios, where D’Angelo had taken up residence while working on his second solo album. “I rung the bell: ‘Is D’Angelo here?’ He opens the door. He’s like, ‘What’s up!’ I said, ‘You got a joint?’ ‘Hell yeah I got a joint.’ He’s like, ‘Can we do a song?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever….’”
Needless to say the two already had history together — they’d co-written and co-produced “Lady,” D’Angelo’s biggest hit until that point — and they were about to make more: “We walk in and we do “Untitled [(How Does It Feel)”] in maybe like two hours,” he says.
True to form, Saadiq is still a talent magnet. For his Tiny Desk Fest set — recorded on Halloween, which explains the costumed crowd — he’s joined by rising soul singer and songwriter Lucky Daye, who released his Grammy-nominated debut album, Painted, and made his own Tiny Desk debut this year. Daye performs two songs from that album, in addition to backing Saadiq, who also brought along a sousaphone player for his Instant Vintage classic, “Still Ray.”
His collaborative performance with Daye is yet another testament to Saadiq’s widespread influence, which remains something of an open secret to those in the know. Meanwhile, Jimmy Lee continues to garner Saadiq the kind of attention typically reserved for newer artists. After a career spent contributing so much of his genius behind the scenes and painting over the dark spots in his past with bright, ecstatic strokes, his latest feat feels like a revelation.
“I’m really just shocked about my whole career,” he says. “People say Raphael Saadiq is the most slept-on artist. I think I slept on myself, too. I would read this all the time [and] go, ‘Slept on? I’m slept on? Cause I ain’t Kanye? Cause I ain’t talking loud?’ Naw, they know.”
Indeed, we always have.
- “I’m Feeling Love”
- “Be Here”
- “This World Is Drunk”
- “Love You Too Much” (Lucky Daye)
- “Call” (Lucky Daye)
- “Still Ray”
Raphael Saadiq: vocals, guitar; Lucky Daye: vocals; Rob Bacon: guitar, vocals; Alvin Ford: drums; DaQuantae “Q” Johnson: bass; Daniel Crawford: keys; Brent Gossett: sousaphone
Producers: Abby O’Neill, Bobby Carter, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative director: Bob Boilen; Audio engineers: Josh Rogosin, Natasha Branch; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Tsering Bista, Kara Frame, CJ Riculan, Jack Corbett; Production assistant: Zemoria Mathis; Executive producer: Lauren Onkey; VP, programming: Anya Grundmann; Photo: Mhari Shaw/NPR