In the world of contemporary R&B, Lyfe Jennings is the prototype for what hip-hop heads would consider a “street disciple.” Like Nasir Jones, his musical cousin of another genre, Jennings has been vocal in tackling taboo issues that are ever-present in the social milieu. But even thugs need love, too, and his catalog boasts tracks that spotlight the joys of life, love and the never-ending pursuit of happiness.
By straddling (and blurring) the lines of hip-hop and R&B, Lyfe Jennings has become one of the music industry’s most unique stars. And in spite of the mass media attention has been focused on his past, as an incarcerated felon, he has defied every stereotypical characterization that has come his way. Accordingly, in 2008, the New York Times heralded Jennings as “a socially minded R&B singer.”
To date, Lyfe Jennings has recorded three critically-acclaimed albums: Lyfe 268-192 (2004), The Phoenix (2006) and Lyfe Change (2008). In anticipation of his fourth and final studio effort, Mr. Jennings managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on the provocative “S.E.X.,” the early influence of Erykah Badu, and life as a father in the public spotlight.
During the early stage of your career, I was intrigued by a story that revolved around your chance encounter with Erykah Badu’s Baduizm. According to legend, her album ended up in your cell back in '97 and it changed your perspective on music. At that particular moment in time, why do you think Baduizm had such a tremendous influence on your career?
I was at a point in time that I was doing a lot of reading and I couldn't figure out a way to connect what I was reading to the music. Because up until then, it had never really been done. And then when I heard about Baduizm, I said, “Wow! This is all you're going to hear when she drop the knowledge within the stones.” You know what I'm saying? She was still doing the music, but she did it her way. And I said, “That's what I want to do.”
What song spoke to you the most?
My favorite track off Baduizm is “On & On.” That was just very crazy, you know?
Once you were released from jail, there was a brief moment — a month or so of freedom — before you landed on stage at the Apollo Theatre. What was that transition period like? Did you find it hard to get back on your feet?
Well, the transition period wasn't really a transition period because when I was incarcerated, every day I was working on the music. And I didn't want to get out and then go on to study – you know, try to give back and connect to people, and all of that, man. I just really wanted to skip straight to the music thing, straight to the schedule that I had in prison. If I worked at the time, that's the time my work's cut out. And that's pretty much what I did up until the Apollo.
I remember there being a lot of controversy when you appeared at the Apollo. When you walked onstage, you were booed to a certain degree because you had an acoustic guitar. As an aspiring artist, what kind of obstacles did you have to overcome, in regards to your imaging and garnering interest in your music?
Well, they definitely booed me, as far as energy goes. By being gone for ten years, you lose your sense of style because when you leave, the clothes and cars and everything – there's a certain way. And when you come home, like naturally to you, you think everything's looking fine. But in reality, you're out-of-date. That was one of the hardest things for me – just updating a lot of the wardrobe things, man, so I could look the part.
When did you first pick up the guitar? On the cover of your first album, Lyfe 268-12, you have the guitar hanging over your shoulder, and you even mention in some places that you played while you were in jail.
Well, in prison it was the only instrument that you could have. And one of the other reasons why I played while in jail was because they have bands that play for the church in prison. They wanted to put music to my songs, but they wanted to do it their way and with no type of help from me at all. And I didn't want that. I wanted to be a part of the overall music-making process. And so I thought, “I better just do this myself. Do my own deal.”
Does the guitar speak to you in a particular way, as opposed to the piano or drums?
Oh, yeah. You can do a lot more on the guitar – as far as up and down, and making all that stuff – than you can on any other instrument, in my opinion.
With your first three albums, a central theme has always been the concept of change – whether on personal, spiritual or communal level. What other kind of messages do you feel are important to send out to your listeners?
I definitely try to send messages out to the readers that, you know, we are human. And I'm going to make mistakes, too, but the most important thing is just recognizing and realizing the mistakes and trying to move on from them. And that's all anybody can do.
When you look back over your career and reflect on some of these mistakes, what do you think was the biggest professional lesson that you had to learn?
The major mistakes that I made early on was pretty much based on two things: not taking full control, personal control of my own projects more, and not doing everything people try to tell you. Once you have some form of success, they say, “Okay, well, you can't do this, because this is not good, this is not good.” Well, I think that they want to prove that when you do everything, you have more opportunity than such a greater amount of people in your life would have had. So I would just do everything if I had to do it all over again.
Considering your life story, you were able to take a negative experience and turn it into something positive for your life. Even more, you have been able to use the musical platform in a positive way to speak to a lot of people. When you first arrived on the music scene, how much freedom and flexibility did you have in sharing your story? Was it difficult at the beginning?
You know what? I had all the freedom where I could do whatever I wanted to do, but I felt like the label was trying to turn it into like a cartoon or something. You know, “We've got to get this story out because this story's going to do this.” And it's not that this story's going to help people, and this story might allow a change in somebody's life. But, “Let's just all get it all out because it's going to make you more of this.” That's how I saw the money at the time. That's why I never really ever talked about that before – even up until now when you talked about the prison experience – because I don't want it to be glamorized like some type of cartoon.
You have your own label now, Jesus Swings. At what point did you know that you needed to create your own management team and have your own identity, outside of the label?
It's everything, like too many moments to name. But I just think that a lot of times, management, they're comfortable in your success even before you're comfortable. They're not out here, and you can still be trying to do bigger and better stuff, man. And that's a lot of the problems that I had.
From a marketing standpoint, you seem to straddle the fence in a lot of ways. Some people – just based off of appearances – might want to place you in a certain category. You have an R&B audience, as well as a hip-hop following. How do you manage those two audiences and bridge the gap?
I don't even think it's me, like for real. I just think it's the truth, like people just see themselves in the music. And wherever they are, whatever side of the fence, if it's the truth for you, you're going to gravitate towards it. As well as style wise, man – I mean I'm still having a problem with styling because I know to move to the next level, you've really got to be rocking the collared shirts and no hats and stuff like that because you become non-threatening. That's what I always say. But I still feel uncomfortable in stuff like that, man. It's not purposely that I'm straddling the fence. It's accidentally, because sometime I put it on, and other times I'm just not comfortable in it. I don't know why.
Few artists are willing to take a risk and release music that revolves around controversial and taboo issues. Do you consider yourself to be a street disciple, like Nasir Jones? A couple of years ago The New York Times dubbed you as "a socially minded R&B singer."
I really feel like that because if you look out here, I feel like nobody's really doing what I'm doing. There are several great singers, like Anthony Hamilton and Alicia Keys, who produce quality music, but when you talk about releasing something like “S.E.X.” or “Must Be Nice” or “She Got Kids” or “Keep on Dreaming” or whatever, there's nobody out there doing that specifically.
You just mentioned a few of my favorite songs. I'll start with “S.E.X.” What life events led you to write this song?
I see these young girls and I can imagine what's going through their mind when their bodies start developing all of a sudden. And I just know that the attention on them totally changes. It's like day and night. They can't even go to the corner store without getting hounded there by a dude. I saw so much when I got back. I thought, “Let me write a joint about this in case they're kind of unclear about which direction they should go.”
Another one of my favorites is “It's Real.” What was the inspiration behind that particular song?
Just every day stuff. Like I see it with my partner sometimes. You see a chick in a club or wherever. You're talking about some sex with her, or whatever, planning when she gets in. It's like a spur of the moment thing and you don't have time to go get some condoms or something. You really want to do this, but you've got a choice to make. But a lot of times we're not seeing clearly, so I just wanted to make sure I did something that would aid people in being able to see the whole situation.
The current buzz single for your upcoming project is entitled “Haters.” Why do you think that song was the perfect lead-in for this album? And what response do you have for all the haters that are in your life right now?
Let me tell you something funny. Let's keep it real. I put out “Haters” at first because I definitely wanted to judge some things going on in my life, and really, all I tried to do was provide it in music. And sometimes, you know, one thing turns out bad. Everybody wants to talk crazy about you. So I put out “Haters.” Something interesting happened with “Haters.” Hot song. I love it. “Haters” didn't really get an emotional response from the people.
And it's the emotions because, what people told me — and it surprised me and it also humbled me, too, and gave me direction — my fans said they bought into the record and said it was cool, or whatever. But they said that, “We can get that from anybody. We can get ‘Haters’ from any of the young cats, from Mario and Usher to whoever. But we can't get a ‘Cry’ from them. We can't get a ‘Must Be Nice’ or a ‘S.E.X.’ from them, so that's why we love you.” The music put them in a state of mind to be greater than what they are. And I was like, “Damn!” And I went back and revamped my album after that. Like, “That's right.”
According to multiple reports, Sooner or Later will be your last album. If this is your final album, what do you want this to be in terms of your legacy?
Well, we've changed the album title. And I also went back and revamped the album. So the album is entitled The Afterlife. That's our record title right now – The Afterlife – because it's my last album. Afterlife, you know the connection. But I really don't know what type of legacy it's going to be as for me, man. I just hope that people can continue to appreciate the music and continue to listen to songs like “She Got Kids.” And even get involved in that woman's life when she got kids and tell her that she's just not on it. Or listen to her cry and feel like it's okay if she had a couple of tears. At this point, it's just going to make you better in the future. I don't know. I ain't no elegant cat, man. I do music.
I thought it was interesting that you mention the afterlife because of the Biblical connotation. As a child, you started in the church. So now, having experienced your fair share of ups and downs, did you ever find your way back?
Yeah. I just had enough of these, but not the sole reason, you know, taking the trip, you understand? I don't get a chance to get out to church much now. I still do my reading and stuff, because I have to. But I thought, “Well, okay. My kids have never been to church.” My kids are like four years old, two years old, and my little girl will be one. And so I said, “Okay, I'm going to take all of my kids to church for the first time together.” And I get to the church – and I went to this church because they said you can come as you are; I don't have to get dressed up or nothing. I'm kind of uncomfortable with those kinds of clothes. And I get there, and the guy was, “Okay, take off your hats.” And I was like, “But you said I could come as I am, right?” To make a short story shorter, do you know they kicked me and my kids out of church?
Wow! That's interesting.
I said, “Are you for real? Are you really telling me that I've got to leave church right now, man?” And he was like, “Yeah, I'm telling you you've got to leave.” I said, “Goodbye.” So church is funny, man. It's a funny place.
Outside of your conflict with church customs, it is obvious and apparent that you have a spiritual connection to an outer source? You've been put on this earth for a certain reason, and you've been able to reach a lot of people. Do you ever wonder why you were chosen to lead this life?
I know that God has led me to do what I do. One thing everyone knows about me: I'm going to tell the truth, even if it's embarrassing to me or somebody else. You know that I'm going to tell the truth about it, so maybe that's it.
Your mother has also been a powerful, motivating force in your life? When you look back over your career, is there a particular piece of advice that she has given you that you held onto over all these years?
My momma always say, “You are the head and not the tail.” And I try to live with that. Because dealing with different aspects, people will try to run over you – regardless of who you are – because everybody is a star in their own field. I try to remember that. And plus, my momma used to be a certain kind of lady when I was younger, you know what I'm saying? And her and my grandma, they told me it's proof that you can change, because she's a totally different person now then she was.
As you've become famous, one of the pitfalls, of course, is the loss of privacy. Everyone knows who you are, and every success and misstep is heavily scrutinized. How has that impacted your life, for better or worse, since you're a father now.
My boy, four years old, he reads. I don't want him reading nothing negative about me, because my kids got a very, very clear and clean slate as far as life's concerned. It affects me negatively sometimes, because for a long time, my boy was calling me “life guinea,” and I don't like that. Because that's what they were hearing all the time. And I think that, in the land of so-called celebrity, you have a lot more scrutiny than you otherwise would have had. Something small to somebody else is now big with you.
Is there something that got twisted in the media that you would like to clear it up?
No, not really. Whatever the media said, they said. I'll try to just leave it at that, man.
At the risk of asking an obvious question, I curious to know the origin of your stage name: Lyfe. It goes without saying that your music speak about various aspects of life. But did you create it, or did someone give it to you?
Well, my singing name used to be “Music for Lyfe,” but then the cats in the joint said that that was too long. And then, you know, they just liked Lyfe because those are the situations I sing about. Pretty much every song is about some aspect of life. So that's where it came from.
Since all of your songs are a reflection of life and your own personal experiences. Is there a particular song that holds a special place in your heart?
I think my new single, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” At the very least, that song sums up not just my current situation but a lot of past situations.
When I look back over your career, you definitely had several songs that I could relate to, as far as my own personal situations. One of my favorite songs is “Cry.” And a few weeks ago, I was listening to Life After Death. On the album, “Biggie,” [The Notorious B.I.G.], had a line on “Miss You,” where he said, “I'm a thug, but I swear for three days, I cried.” In this day and age, it is often frowned upon when men show any type of emotion. Why was it important for you to come out with this song?
I think that that was an enjoyable time, and it was such a strong atmosphere – like an aggressive atmosphere. And catching those situations in your life, and act like it wasn't nothing – which you could tell it affected them. But then that lack of outlet will cause them to get into a whole bunch of situations that they otherwise would have never got into, just because of the build-up. You know what I'm talking about? And so I wrote a song about that buildup. It could have been called “The Buildup.” It could have been called “Cry.” It could have been called a whole bunch of things.
Another song that I really spoke to me is actually off your last album, Lyfe Change: “Hmmm.” In the song, you chant: “If I die tonight, it's all right.” Do you feel the same way?
I do feel like if I die tonight, you know, it's going to be cool. Of course, you can't plan death. No, I really feel . . . that's going to touch back on what you were asking me earlier, about what would I want my legacy to be — but you said it. I just want my legacy to be that I made a difference. Period.
What other aspects of life do you touch on in this new album that you didn't touch on in your first three?
Well, of course, “If I Knew Then What I Knew Now” – the reflection. I've got a song on there called “Done Crying.” It's like, when you get scared up in a situation. It's like the other half of “Cry.” Now I'm done crying. There’s a song on there called “Vogue.” I did a song from my performance at Apollo – since I only did half of it. I just put it on there for the real fans. I've got a song on there by Anthony Hamilton called “Momma.” It’s about all the years about how you listen or you don't listen to your momma and the bad situation's happening. You look back and you understand your momma was right all along [laughing]. There’s a couple of other jewels on there, too, man.
For more information on Lyfe Jennings, visit his official website.