Lyfe Jennings

The Phoenix

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What's surprising about Lyfe Jennings' career is that not only does his soulful music recall the freedom the soul genre experienced in the early '70s but how his major label, Sony, gives him that freedom in the rather stilted 21st century. Listening to his sophomore effort, The Phoenix, the question could be raised as to who is responsible for the album's heavy Kanye West and John Legend influence. Legend's emotional, piano-driven style rears its head often and West's elaborate ambition is all over the place, but a couple listens in, it's obvious that Jennings is responsible for all the unique moves and doubtful that Sony told him, "We need you to be our Kanye." The fact Sony gave the man's debut plenty of time to sink in with the public -- they worked it for an eternity by 21st century standards -- is a clue, but the proof is all over The Phoenix, a giant of an album with giant rewards, giant flaws, and grand swoops of unbridled creativity that somehow got Sony's stamp of approval. First off, there's a song-explaining interlude between practically every track, something that wears out its welcome in three listens or so. The interludes that bridge "Goodbye" (excellent and achingly poignant), "Let's Stay Together" (silky smooth), and "Biggie Nigga" (uplifting and fascinating) are especially clumsy, with Lyfe explaining how he faced the "making up is easier than breaking up" conundrum and made the more difficult choice, then made the easier choice, then dumped his lady for another girl who made him feel like the Notorious B.I.G. The chitter-chatter undermines this killer trilogy of songs, but if you want a really strange move, check out how the tougher-than-tough "Slow Down" (with G-Unit member Young Buck) uses the Gilligan's Island theme for its hook. As part of the whole, it works beautifully, as do the outlandish lyrics dropped into "Biggie Nigga" ("I was breast-fed by Godzilla") and "The River" ("I'm cursing the vagina that gave life to me"), since they're surrounded by eye-level views of Lyfe's past and his delivery is always convincing. On top of it all, he pulls off the tricky "sexual abstinence" song ("S.E.X.") without a hitch, throws out enough bold ideas and grand statements for two West records, and his raspy voice is as rich as ever. The Phoenix is a crazy, big, flawed album, but it's a trip, and a riveting one that anyone who loved his debut will want to take.

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