“Lord please forgive me for all my sins, I just wish I could do it again / but I’d probably fuck it up again.” Yep, that’s good ole, brutally honest R&B singer/songwriter Lyfe Jennings for you, never one to sugarcoat anything. Much like the quote – courtesy of “#Hashtag” – one minute Jennings dishes out profanity like it’s candy, while the next he’s singing about true love or asking for forgiveness for his sins and improprieties. Anybody who’s followed Jennings over the years is accustomed to this, and Jennings’ sixth album Tree of Lyfe offers a similar script to his past work.
Jennings doesn’t come at you like a freight train, at least at the beginning of Tree of Lyfe. “I Love You” kicks things off, dribbling in chivalrousness. Obviously from its title, it’s a big, heaping helping of old school, genuine love without question. Rough and tumble Jennings is nowhere to be found, save for his gritty and distinct soulful voice. Listening to it, one would think that the neo-soul movement had began to trend again. “She Don’t Wanna” which follows, remains fueled by “love”, but delves more into the situational scenarios Jennings has been noted for: records like “She Got Kids” or “S.E.X.”
By “#Hashtag”, the boldest Lyfe Jennings rears his blunt head. “#Hashtag” isn’t ‘brand new’ as far as messaging, but compared to the opening duo, not to mention much of Tree of Lyfe, it’s the most modern-sounding record. The spirit of R&B and hip-hop come together sensationally, as Jennings delivers a series of quotes exemplifying life’s misfortunes, such as being broke and resorting to drastic means – hustling and robbery – to make ends meet. He masterfully paints a picture of a vicious circle, where nothing takes away the pain, not even drinking or weed.
The ‘duets’ portion of the album follows. “Were Not the Same”, featuring indie R&B singer Algebra Blessett is interesting thanks to the chemistry between the two. Both singers trade lines, creating a captivating interplay. The second duet, “Talkin About Love” (featuring Demetria McKinny) is more traditional. “Talkin About Love” is more conservative, like the album’s love centric opener. The acoustic guitar accompaniment further cements traditionalism. Good but not great, it falls on the boring side of things.
“Right Now” joins a pool of love cuts, soaked in emotion and drama, as Jennings sings from the perspective of the woman, “you love him till the day you die”. The bigger attraction is “Pretty Is,” a record playing best to Jennings’ strength in the situational setting. Jennings relies on the feminine persona, depicting what a ‘dancer’ desires in love and life beyond her profession: “He want a lap dance / he want a chance / he want to sell her dream but she ain’t buying / she wants real love / somebody that will never judge her.” Jennings sums up his point with truism “Pretty is what pretty does,” adding, “you’ll always be pretty because you’re still full of love.”
Jennings embodies Marvin Gaye on the socially conscious “People”. While not the reincarnation of “What’s Going On”, “People” is a contemporary snapshot of the world, at least through Jennings’ eyes. He then shows off something too often devoid in contemporary R&B music: songwriting with profundity. “Gods” isn’t the definitive, crème de la crème instance of R&B songwriting, but for 2015, it’s a notable example. “Always” concludes the album, ‘looking back’ into soul’s history for its overall vibe and sound. It works, and vocally Jennings delivers his best performance of the album.
So how tall does the Tree of Lyfe stand when it’s all said and done? It’s good for quite a few feet. To reiterate, Jennings doesn’t add anything new to his arsenal, but his biceps seem to be pretty fit as he flexes them here. Earth shattering? Not a chance, but it’s a respectable blend of older and newer R&B. It may not earn Jennings a new following, but old faithful should be pleased.