At a time when most grown folks think R&B is dead—and the lines between crooner and rapper become increasingly blurred—one man who still believes in making music from the heart is Lyfe Jennings. In 2004, the singer (born Chester Jermaine Jennings) left behind a tumultuous past, which included a 10-year stint in jail for arson, and turned to music with his album Lyfe 268-192. Gruff and streetwise but with a marked redemptive quality—the album title comes from his inmate number—he was equal parts bad boy and seducer. He gave us eargasms on tracks like “Must Be Nice,” “Stick Up Kid” and “Hypothetically” (feat. Fantasia Barrino). Following his platinum debut, Lyfe continued to release music, including 2006’s The Phoenix and 2013’s Lucid, but it was a string of legal imbroglios that took center stage. In 2010, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail following a 2008 domestic dispute.
Now, a free man with a positive view on life, Lyfe returns with his sixth studio album Tree of Lyfe (out June 23). The singer is taking it back to basics musically and promises to deliver what we’ve come to expect from him. But he isn’t shying away from the cultural zeitgeist. Need proof? Just watch the music video for “Pretty Is,” which gives us an antithesis to the stripper worship so ubiquitous in pop culture. Whether his opinions give you life or make you cringe, there’s one thing you can’t deny: Lyfe Jennings speaks his mind.
Unlike many veterans, at this point, you’ve expressed that you’re not trying to reinvent yourself on Tree of Lyfe.
I never set out to create an album. I’m just always doing work. I don’t just mean work musically; I’m always doing work mentally. I’m just doing songs. I try to grab the most powerful songs about a subject. Sometimes, I might write 30 songs about one subject. I just go to the pool of subjects and just grab the best songs from that pool. That’s how I create an album. The album created itself, I just facilitate.
The Tree of Life appears in different world religions and mythologies. Why did you title your album this?
To me, the Tree of Life is the people and their interactions with each other. I feel like the world really got away from the people. Everything is automated, materialistically-based. I just wanted to a concept that returned people to the people.
Your single “Pretty Is” celebrates the beauty of women and the music video is clearly a commentary on the stripper archetype dominating pop culture, especially as it relates to Black and brown women.
Yeah, strippers is pop now. I wrote it in response to a couple of songs I’ve been hearing lately on the radio. Mainly, the Usher song, “I Don’t Mind.” I think a lot of stuff you hear on the radio is lies. No offense to Usher. He says he don’t mind, but if your girl is coming in at three, four o’clock in the morning, [smelling] like, 30 different perfumes and baby wipes. You don’t mind? I would mind! You know? I think it gives the wrong impression. It’s almost like we’ve become publicists for drugs and strip clubs. I’m not hating on the hustle, but just making them aware of the obstacles if this is what you choose to do. If you choose to do it anyway, I understand. Don’t just be out here buying purses and shoes. When you hit 40 and them things will get to sagging a little bit lower, people won’t be tipping, then I hope you have not used this pedestal just for a purse.
I read in a press release that you’re focusing on creating meaningful music versus the “booty-popping” music dominating modern R&B.
I want to clarify that. I do like the booty-shaking sometimes. I don’t think R&B is dead. I think every decade or two or whatever, these young cats come with something new. You can’t say, “This is bad” because it happened in all time. Elvis Presley couldn’t shake his hips on TV. They were banning him. At the end of the day, I just think, we gotta use whatever pedestal there is and flip it into a way that helps society, man. Radio, also, they gotta take responsibility sometimes. Yes, you need that music to not think and have fun but you also need that soundtrack to your life, man. It seems that there’s just less of the latter, as time goes on.
So what pool of inspiration did you draw from for Tree of Lyfe?
Oh, well. How woman always being the sidepiece because the guy always telling them, “I’m gonna leave my wife. I’m gonna leave this other woman.” That was one of the subjects. Another subject, a song called “God,” [is about] delving into different spiritual practices, whether they’re orthodox or not. Another taboo subject is getting with your ex. You may not wanna be with them, but you still have feelings for your ex.
On the topic of sidepieces, some women think that every man cheats and monogamy isn’t possible nowadays. From a man’s perspective, do you believe this is true or are some women just embittered by past experience?
Here’s the thing, this is just my personal experience: I think that a guy cheats because it’s almost like taking a chance. We don’t usually have access to a lot to women. Anything that comes to him that’s outside of the norm, he’s gotta grab onto because he feels like he’ll never have it again. Not that I used to be out there cheating, but I’ve dealt with a lot of women. I’ve experienced all of that. Now when I have a woman, I understand the power of [a long-term relationship]. “Remember the time we did that five or ten years ago?” There’s power in that, and it’s special.
Some argue that a man needs to experience the world (or “get the dog out of him”) before he’s really ready to settle down with one woman. As a man, how do you know when you’re ready for monogamy? Is it a feeling, reaching a certain age, etc.?
I don’t think it’s a certain age or a certain time. I think it’s just a certain moment. That moment for me—I had a significant other—and I realized, “Wow. I’m not talking to anyone else. Everywhere I go, I want this person with me.” You’ve graduated to a point where you can be satisfied. I think that comes with other things in your life. It’s cool to always want, more and more and more, but have you really enjoyed what you have? When you find somebody you like, when you want to eat, eat with them. It’s great to have a lot of options but it’s a blessing being satisfied with what you have.
Options in dating can be problematic. It’s like a cruise ship buffet. Why settle down with steak when there’s shrimp in the next aisle?
Right. Then you eat the shrimp like, “Damn. This ain’t like the shrimp I had yesterday!”
Switching gears, your legal run-ins have been very public. What are your thoughts about the current climate of issues between police and Black and Latino communities in America? (Note: This interview was conducted before the nationwide protests for Freddie Gray and subsequent homicide charges filed in his death)
This has always been happening. The only thing that’s been different is there’s social media; there’s a chance to put it in a broader way for people to see it. I also think people of color, we need a better publicist, man. When you see the Jewish community, Caucasian community, any other community, when they produce pictorial or visual stuff for people to shoot, they put their best foot forward. They make sure that the media has great images of them. Us, on the other hand, we will let the worst images of ourselves, you know, be available for the people to see. There are bad parts of it and it [doesn’t] make the police any better for what they did, but people have a stereotype of us from what they see and that’s what they’re gonna do regardless. They gonna believe what they see.
This idea of taking ownership of the images that we put out there and how that affects society, is this something you learned from personal experience?
Yo. It’s wild because that actually has been my experience, regardless of what I’ve read or seen. My personal experience is the same experience that most guys have in the hood. We go to the club and the club says, “You can’t get in with tennis shoes.” We’re mad and we start a fight outside. We go back and all this other stuff. Later on in life, I started realizing, “Damn. People treat you different when you dress a certain kind of way.” When I go play basketball, I’m not gonna play basketball in a suit. There’s a uniform. Every situation in your life has a uniform to be successful. You’re not a sell-out. You’re not a sucker. You’re not a lame. All you’re doing is dressing the part.