It’s extremely easy for a person to become a victim of circumstance. Case in point: confinement to a prison cell for slightly over a decade can create an institutionalized mind, far beyond rehabilitation. On the flipside, achieving platinum status in the music industry can certainly blow up an artist’s head to the point of no return to normalcy. However, neither circumstance has been able to overpower the individualistic mindset of R&B’s rare genius, Lyfe Jennings, formerly known as inmate 268-192. His soulfulness has many listeners assimilating his artistic attributes to that of soulful legends such as Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles, to name a few.
However, while sitting in Sony Music Studios, in N.Y.C., working on his third album, Brand New (Columbia Records), Lyfe can’t help but mention his likeness to the multi-Grammy award winning country music singer/songwriter, the late Johnny Cash, who spent most of his career signed to Lyfe’s current record label, Columbia Records. Filling the shoes of the man who once advocated for prison reform when he met with President Nixon in 1972 might seem next to impossible to those familiar with the many humanitarian works of Cash. But, if anyone comes close to a certain extent, Lyfe is surely a modern day version of the honorable legend.
“I’m going back to jail like Johnny Cash,” Lyfe says proudly while fiddling with the guitar he learned to play in prison, reflecting on the actions of Cash, who although never served time, performed at various prisons and used his personal struggles as a source of inspiration for his songs. Since Lyfe’s 2002 release from prison—where he served time from the ages of 15 through 25 for an arson charge—Lyfe returned to Richland correctional facility twice, donated money and will be returning a third time this summer. Only this visit is to perform for the inmates, and donate a tree to the facility, appropriately titled “The tree of Lyfe” as a symbol of prosperity.
“I don’t really like to talk about it much,” the Toledo, Ohio native says (born Chester Jennings) reminiscing on his time in jail. “I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I like to put that behind me and focus on the future. I don’t want to send the wrong message to the kids. Some of them have told me, ‘If you did it, I can do it, too.’ By no means do I want them to think that going to jail is cool. That’s the last place anyone should be. A lot of guys get real comfortable in prison. They hook up their cells as if it’s a hotel. They buy the nice sheets sets with the matching towels and rugs. I couldn’t get that comfortable. I knew that my freedom was eventually coming.”
Two days after kissing the great steel gates goodbye, Lyfe recorded a four song demo. On his third day out he performed at a club. Two weeks later he made the first of five live appearances at Harlem’s world famous Apollo Theatre, where he won the amateur competition on each occasion. Of the many label offers thrown his way within his two months of freedom, he chose Columbia Records. His self-produced debut album Lyfe 268-192 (Columbia Records, 2004), titled after his Ohio State inmate ID, sold more than 1 million even though it took a year—a rare sales stretch in the music business. His sophomore album, Phoenix (Columbia Records, 2006), went gold. Having collaborated with some of the most talented R&B singers, rappers and producers in the industry, Lyfe’s newest formula for his forthcoming project appears to be pure brilliance.
“Nobody can do it like I do,” he says after shooting dice on the studio floor, as he proceeds to shift through tracks for his album set for release on October 30, 2007. The first single, “Cops Up,” as well as the album’s self-titled second single, “Brand New,” featuring Lil’ Wayne, were both produced by the Hyenas, a production duo consisting of Lyfe and Flint, Michigan native “Pretty Boi” Tony Martinez. “I want to get Jay-Z on “Cops Up,” but I guess Jay only works with Def Jam artists,” Lyfe says nonchalantly. “I’m still pushing to get him on the track though.” His creativity stems as far back as recreating “Daydream Believer,” a track originally sung by the ’60s rock group The Monkees.
But an even more astonishing, well-thought concept was the track “Rain Dance.” “This is the first ever inspirational stripper song,” explains Doc Black, an artist on Lyfe’s Jesus Swings record label, while bopping his head back and forth in harmony with the rhythmic flute play of the breakthrough song.
“It’s guaranteed to get non-stop radio play—all day, everyday,” Lyfe adds with great confidence. Indeed, the song has enough to make a stripper go up and down the pole with the greatest of ease, but there’s a conscious message that might just get the flexible dancer to head to the dressing room and second-guess her occupation afterwards. “I’m not fully rehabilitated spiritually. I still have flaws, but I always try and reflect a positive message in my music,” he explains.