Album of the Week: Lyfe Jennings’ Lyfe 268-192 (2004)

“This falls into a full-bodied narrative arc so effortlessly. R&B neorealism.” -RYM user Rigondonuts

As suggested by the quote above, Lyfe 268-192 is as much a story as it is an album. Step aside, Kendrick! Lyfe gives the artist’s story in a brilliant, flowing song cycle of a debut. Having been incarcerated at a young age, the numbers in the album’s title refer to his prison number. But Lyfe is much more than a story of prison, it’s a story of love.

As Lyfe opens up to “Must Be Nice”, an ode to a loving partner, one of the first things you may notice is that Lyfe Jennings has a fantastic voice. I first discovered him on the posthumous Shawty Lo song “My Love”, which with its bittersweet sort of electronic harpsichord and the context of Shawty Lo’s untimely passing gives Lyfe a truly heartfelt chorus. He wrings emotion out of his notes in a smoky style similar to that of the classic R&B artists of the 60s. Having written and produced every song himself (with only two songs co-written by others), Lyfe stands out among other R&B albums of the early 2000s with a focused, cohesive vision and style.

Good R&B makes you want to sing. There are certain songs that revolve in your head like a special memory, encouraging off-the-cuff vamping whether you’re in the shower or not. “I Can’t” is one of those songs for me, and it wasn’t even a single from Lyfe. This fantastic love ballad is sandwiched between two excellent tracks about fairly specific relationship difficulties. “She Got Kids” weighs the pros and cons of dating a single mother with an empathetic view, while “Hypothetically” finds the narrative’s couple discussing difficult issues together.

The album’s middle section finds Lyfe single and in legal and financial trouble. The down-to-earth musings of “Stick Up Kid” (“You ever seen a n**** diggin’ in the ashtray? / I’m doin’ bad, y’all”) lead to “Cry”, which features one of my favorite Lyfe quotes: “Crying is like taking your soul to a laundromat.”

I would say the back half of this album is not quite at the level of the first, with its overly-rambling “Made Up My Mind”, but that would be doing a disservice to the amazing closer “Let’s Do This Right”. I love this song. A tribute to people in prison, Lyfe actually names his fellow inmates, effectively immortalizing them in his music. “Lyfe,” he muses in conclusion, “the soundtrack… to your life.”

Listen to Lyfe 268-192 here.

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