Lyfe Jennings has always seemed like an artist from another era. He’s a folk singer, a genuine urban griot who makes songs that paint vivid pictures of crime, redemption, love and pain. He’s the street corner prophet who has seen it all, done it all, and can make you feel and identify with the full measure of that experience through his music.
He’s the only one we got. It’s sad that I Still Believe is likely to be Jennings’ last album, by both design (Jennings said it would be his last so he could spend time with his children) and circumstance (Jennings was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in September as a result of a two-year old case stemming from a domestic dispute).
What I Still Believe leaves us with is a man still struggling, reflective, and, ultimately quite hopeful. Many of the songs depict Jennings as a man still trying to find his place in love and life. The lead single “Busy” is about how frustrated one feels when their lover is too busy for them. Jennings is, as usual, emotionally open and honest. The song turns at the very moment that he realizes his frustration is really borne from insecurity: “if you don’t wanna love me, let me know.” “It Coulda Been Worse” takes that insecurity one step further, as Jennings copes with feelings of inadequacy: “Sometimes when I’m with you I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster / Scared to death I’ll do somethin’ I’m not supposed to.”
With “Love” and “Mama”, a beautiful duet with the great Anthony Hamilton, Jennings shows once again that he excels at a very specific kind of cautionary soul song. Like on “S.E.X.”, Jennings is teaching his audience. Here’s a sample lyric from “Love”: “If you want your girl, need your girl”. Both songs work because Jennings is completely unselfconscious. There is not an ingenuine bone is his body. That, more times than not, is the key reason his music works.
As the album plays, the songs become more and more about self-reflection and less about the pains and pangs of love. Jennings’s singing becomes more and more urgent. The final four songs – “Learn From This”, “Done Crying”, “If I Knew Then, What I Know Now” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” – are poignant, thoughtful and completely affecting, as a result.
Listening to I Still Believe, one can hear how our favorite stick-up kid has grown into a man who wants to do the right thing, wants to be loved, stumbles quite a bit and has unflappable faith that life can always get better. On the album closer “If Tomorrow Never Comes”, Lyfe leaves us with as apt a final statement of his career as anyone could write: “I’ll make sure that I’m the one who says how much I can’t / Remember me for that.” That last bit, that hope, is the thread that keeps the album from being depressing or indulgent. It’s been the defining element of Jennings’ all-too-brief career. Lyfe Jennings is a singer for whom music truly has been a lifeline, and he has made four albums of music in hopes that people who believe music is their lifeline will find it.