Every artist who cultivates an outlaw image in hopes of parlaying that image into street cred and increased record sales is working from the Johnny Cash play book. Cash is the country singer who wrote songs such as "Folsom Prison Blues," as well as performing a live concert at the prison. The double irony is that Cash never did the kind of hard time he sang so poignantly about in "Folsom Prison Blues." Cash, who had a drug problem, was always getting in trouble with the law. However, he was usually getting arrested for things like misdemeanor drug possession, public intoxication and trespassing because he ventured on private property to pick flowers. People might also note that the sucking sound heard by an urban artist who tried to sing or rap about being prison life without actually having experienced prison life would be his career going down the drain.
All of this brings me to the Lyfe Change, the latest work by Chester "Lyfe" Jennings. I'm casting about trying to find the word that would serve as an apt modifier for Lyfe Change. I wake up the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend, trying to get this review done before getting swept up by the weekend activities, and the one word that keeps coming to me is "refreshing." Now, many people who know anything about Jennings and his back-story might blanche at the description of his music as refreshing. Other listeners will probably reach for adjectives such as gritty, real, passionate and intimate, and they'd be right. Jennings, as we know from his first album, did a long prison stint. That first album, Lyfe 268-192, derives its name from Jennings' prison ID number.
That's exactly what makes Jennings so refreshing. He knows that the quickest way to achieve "street cred" in music today is to play up stories about getting shot or going to jail (and preferably doing both). But Jennings has never done that. The one thing that always comes across in Jennings music is that he is a man who looks back on the some of the choices he made and wishes he could change some things. Jennings has always put those gritty stories out there for the listeners to hear. However, he does not glamorize his time in jail. I find that refreshing.
Lyfe Change is also a solid work of art. On his previous two records, the aforementioned Lyfe 268-192 and The Phoenix, Jennings proved adept at combining strong, poetic lyricism with music that is at once classically soulful and right-now contemporary. The songs strive for and achieve street realism not by glamorizing street life or by boasting about women and bling, but by giving a clear eyed view of what's happening on the streets. Jennings' gravely voice is not the sound getting played on the radio. I mean, his throaty vocals that are filled with regret for the life he's lived, true wisdom and a hope that he'll find something better mark him as somebody who knows the difference between what a person wants to do and what a person should do.
The two songs that are the best example of that are "Never Never Land" and "It's Real." Anybody who grew up watching Disney movies knows that Never Never Land is that mythical place where Peter Pan lived where kids stay kids forever. The song is a testament to the struggle going on in many young adults contemplating whether they should embrace adulthood with all its joys, frustrations and responsibilities. The song places the listener in a club hanging out with his friends, but his mind tells his emotional age needs to catch up with his chronological age.
"It feels like something's missing, but I just don't know/It's like I'm not the same man that I was no more/And all these crazy places that I usually go/Are just not as exciting as they were before/I think about you constantly/It surprises me how I changed/My friends all coming down on me saying a player never changes the game/Those fellas live in never never land."
The implication is that adulthood requires people to make choices. He's either got to choose his friends, or the woman he loves. "Never Never Land" doesn't come across as preachy, but as any good preacher will tell you, the best sermons never come across as hectoring. The listener sees his or her life in the words, and stands as either confirmed or convicted. As Lyfe says at the end of the song, he's just the messenger.
The message in "It's Real" is delivered in one of those seductive and sparse beats that sound perfect for the bedroom. And the song tells the story of a hookup. Jennings proves his worth as a storyteller both vocally and lyrically by the way he sets his listener up. He delivers his lines slowly. A good looking woman catches his eye. They start talking. She gives him his number, and then they decide to dispense with the phone call and go someplace quiet. He tells her that he has a hotel room. He's in such a hurry that he forgets to get some protection. And that's the payoff. The public face of HIV is usually the face of AIDS - withered, weak slowly dying. It doesn't start that way. However, anyone can have the disease and with 20 percent of students being HIV positive in some high schools, Jennings is one of several artists making timely records on this important subject.
Other strong songs include "Cops Up," "Wild Wild Wild" - a song that addresses the same topics as "It's Real" and "Never Never Land" - and "Old School." There are also several artists who makes guest appearances on Lyfe Change. T.I. appears on the song "Brand New," Wyclef does a duo with Jennings on the Caribbean influenced "You Think You've Got It Bad" and Snoop raps on "Old School." To his credit, Jennings doesn't overdo the collabs. These collabs are included because of what they add to Lyfe Change artistically rather than commercially. That's pretty refreshing right there.By Howard Dukes