Legendary songwriting savant Raphael Saadiq possesses a career that many artists envy but could never emulate. The renowned performer — who has been making music for three decades — took the world by storm in the late-’80s with his R&B supergroup Tony! Toni! Toné! From there, he has gone onto collaborate with, and write for, countless other musical acts that reads like a hall of fame lineup: Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, and others.
From releasing a string of solo albums to executive producing Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table and serving as composer for the HBO series Insecure, Saadiq’s innovative aesthetic has shaped popular culture as we know it. Before his show at Royale in Boston this Thursday night (July 26), he talked to Vanyaland by phone about his thoughts on current R&B and how he ultimately wants to be remembered in music.
Candace McDuffie: From Tony! Toni! Toné! to Lucy Pearl to the artists you’ve written for and worked with, you’ve been a vital cornerstone in R&B music. But when people hear your name, they tend to categorize you as someone who is underrated or has never been directly in the limelight. Are you comfortable with that?
Raphael Saadiq: I hear that a lot — that I’m the most slept on artist. I sort of like it, though. It gives me a chance to be me and to not get caught up in what other people think or say. But the people who know my work… they understand. People know I’m a bad man. Actually, I think that everybody knows at this point.
And you’re everywhere! I saw you at Afropunk for the very first time last year. Can you talk about how it was performing there?
It was a great experience. I got a chance to play my whole library of music and educate some of the younger kids who haven’t heard it…
But they know it though —
Indirectly. It was just great to see so many people in the audience — it was electrifying. And from what I heard, people were leaving other stages to walk to my stage.
I’m interested in hearing about your creative process with your solo material versus collaborating. Are you harder on yourself than you are with other artists?
I’m a lot harder on myself when I work with other artists. I really want to do a great job when I work with other people; it’s promo for me and when you’re creating with another artist you want them to be happy and excited about the project. On my own projects, I want to play things that some people wouldn’t play. You’ll hear it on my new song called “Too Many Niggas in Rikers Island” which I’m really excited about. I have another song that’s dedicated to my brother who was a heroin addict. The new record is more about addiction and I didn’t do it on purpose — it just sort of happened like that.
Those kinds of topics can be difficult for people to hear.
When you have so many recognizable songs, it’s hard for people to want to listen to new songs. I’ve been very fortunate to have records come out and people at least want to hear four or five songs from them. I’m also hard on myself because I want to always uphold that standard.
What are your thoughts on modern R&B artists?
Anyone in general who you think is doing R&B right right now. Who do you think will have long term careers in such an elusive and constantly changing industry?
I don’t really know who will last. I like Daniel Caesar. I like Solange, of course. Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe, I like Miguel. There’s a lot of indie stuff I also like. I think it’s up to them if they want to be around; they just have to be really clever. I don’t think they have the label’s support when it comes to putting out albums and sustaining themselves as longevity artists like when I came out. Nowadays, a Black male singer is considered pretty much done at 27. You have to figure out ways around that. For myself, I didn’t go to college — this was it. I had to make the best of it. But these kids are also a lot smarter than we were. I think they have it in them.
I feel like modern R&B artists have gotten raw with their truths and their style. It feels less manufactured to me.
I think so too. I think that they’re rebels and they’re figuring it out. They can see the mistakes that were made within the last four, five years. They’ve seen artists come out, be hot and be gone. You come out one week and the next week you’re forgotten about completely.
Speaking of artists who want to be remembered, what do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered in music?
Like Frank Sinatra: I did it my way. I’m a great listener, but I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. For those who want to pursue music, I want you to know it’s doable. You don’t have to be negative all the time… you don’t have to be positive all the time. I was never one or the other. I trusted my ideas always, whether it had to do with a sound or a look. I followed my own leadership and it led me to exactly where I wanted to be. You just have to make your own way.
RAPHAEL SAADIQ + ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD :: Thursday, July 26 at Royale, 279 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $35 to $38 :: Advance tickets :: Bowery Boston event page :: Featured photo by Mel B. Cole