(Soundbite of Lyfe Jennings song)
Mr. LYFE JENNINGS: (Singing) I got the soul school, the color of soul food, candy yam, racist stripes...
CHIDEYA: He's a platinum selling artist who has taken the music industry by storm with his distinct lyrical style. We're talking about Lyfe Jennings. His newest CD is "Lyfe Change." It skillfully references artists from Suzanne Vega to the Stylistics and folds them into a contemporary R&B hip-hop sound. Lyfe, thanks for coming on.
Mr. LYFE JENNINGS (Singer): Appreciate you having us.
CHIDEYA: So "Lyfe Change" is the name of your third CD. What does that mean in terms of how you approached your work this time?
Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I think on the third CD you definitely want to show some level of growth. I think your first album is your introduction. Your second album needs to show consistency. And your third album has to show growth in order for you to have a fourth album.
(Soundbite of song "Keep On Dreaming")
Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) You are a star, and you are perfect just the way you are. Keep on dreaming, keep on shining...
CHIDEYA: So, "Keep On Dreaming," one of your songs, folds in the loop from Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." And you have echoes of songs by other artists throughout the CD, but not samples per se. Why did you choose that approach?
Mr. JENNINGS: You know, I think people want to be able to hear something familiar while hearing something new. It kind of ties it all together, like the "Tom's Diner" sample, it's just, it's like, she managed to be able to convey a certain feeling just off a melody that she had. She didn't really even say anything, but "duh duh da da, duh duh da da." You know what I'm saying? And I think that's something that I wanted to mimic in this song. It's not a lot of words, but it's really just a feeling that I was trying to convey.
CHIDEYA: Now, what's your favorite song on the CD?
Mr. JENNINGS: My favorite song on the CD, I would have to say that it is a song called, "Midnight Train."
(Soundbite of song "Midnight Train")
Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) Take the kids, your heart...
CHIDEYA: Why so?
Mr. JENNINGS: Because "Midnight Train" is different for me in the sense that it's not as urban. It gave me the opportunity to try something new. And you know, some of those songs that you hear, as soon as they come on you're just like, this is just a great song, this is a relaxing song, and it means something.
CHIDEYA: Some of your music is more contemporary, hip hop, R&B. But then, some of the ballads sound much more old school. How did you decide to balance those different flavors?
Mr. JENNINGS: Well, I don't think I, like, really made a conscience attempt to try to balance anything. I think maybe it sounds old school because it's the truth, and I think that a lot of the older music, you know, they dealt with everyday life situations because that's what was popular at the time. And now it seems like in today's society, fantasy is more popular than reality. So I just try to bring it back to reality so that we have that balance.
CHIDEYA: Now, Snoop, T.I., and Wyclef are all on this CD. How'd you guys get together to collaborate, and what was it like working with them?
Mr. JENNINGS: Well, T.I. was just in a situation where he had a lot of time, and we had been talking about doing a record together. And actually, my children's mother and his children's mother are friends. And they always said that even though we became famous, we never got brand new. You know, that's what the song is about, you know, not forgetting about, you know, the people who were in your life from the beginning.
CHIDEYA: So how do you interact with other musicians? What I mean by that is, as someone who listens to music, like so many people, I see these collaborations on albums, but it sounds like they happen really organically. I mean, how do you maintain those connections that allow you to go on and do these collaborations?
Mr. JENNINGS: I think, first of all you have to be a fan of the other person. You know, whatever project it is that you're working on, you have to see a need for them, like a good fit. And I think that one of the things you have to do is you have to let a person be creative. Like when I go into the studio with Wyclef, you know, I'm not in there like, Wyclef, I need it a certain way. What I do is I give him the idea.
Like we have a song together called, "You Think You Got It Bad." And what I do is, you know, we'll play the track. Then we'll ask him what do he think it needs? And he goes in the studio and do it. You know, it's never something like boy, you can write something for somebody else. You just have to leave everybody creatively open and just hope that it'll all work out.
(Soundbite of Lyfe Jennings Song)
Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) Everything happens for a reason...
CHIDEYA: Now, one of your collaborators, T.I., was just sentenced to jail on weapons charges. He's, you know, hasn't started serving, yet. But you spent some time in jail yourself. And do you have any advice for someone like T.I. on how to deal with doing time?
Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. I think, you know, it is an opportunity. I mean, it's kind of a sad opportunity. I hate to, you know, get an opportunity to have a lot of time with yourself like that. But seeing as if you do, you have the ability to focus on something completely. You have no other outside circumstances that just need your attention like that. You know, he could, you know, write songs. He could find the cure to cancer. He could do anything, man.
I think that with that time, you just need to map it out and make sure that you stay busy. Because if you don't, there's a lot of other elements, you know, inside, that could possibly corrupt you. And you might not only lose your freedom, you might end up losing your life. So you've got to be really careful while you're in there.
CHIDEYA: Now your song "It's Real" deals with a really heavy topic: AIDS.
Mr. JENNINGS: Right.
CHIDEYA: Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of song "It's Real")
Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) Surely she's a freak undercover, so excited, I forgot to stop and go grab some rubbers. Damn. Uh oh. AIDS is real. Don't care how you feel. Yes, I want to chill, but I've got to wrap it up. I've got to protect us cos AIDS is real...
CHIDEYA: Do you think message music in a broad sense really changes people's behavior? Was that your intent with this, and if so, do you think it works?
Mr. JENNINGS: I don't know if it necessarily changes people's behavior, like you hear it and go, I'm going to change. I think that what it does is something to be remembered. Like it is a reminder, you know. I think the best any of us can hope to do when we record message-based music is a person might end up in that situation and that song may come back to their mind. And, irregardless of what people think, some people say that music doesn't stimulate a certain action, I think it does.
I think that if you constantly listen to - if the guy says something crazy to you, slap him in the face, slap him in the face. When that situation appears and the guy says something crazy to him, that song is going to come back to your mind. So that makes you that much more prone to slap this dude in the face. But if you hear that message that says when the guy says something crazy to you, he's a child, leave him alone. You know, I think the same results may follow that you're more prone to think, well, this guy's a child, I'm going to just leave him alone.
CHIDEYA: Given what you just told me, do you ever worry about the contemporary music industry - including, but not limited to, hip-hop - that these messages that are going out from different artists sometimes lead people to have in the back of their mind responses to life that are just going to drag them down? I mean, do you - and do you think artists need to be responsible for the messages they put out?
Mr. JENNINGS: I think they definitely need to be responsible for the messages, and I think that it definitely does, you know, concern me. I mean, because when you're in the mood to work out, you're going to listen to something that motivates you to work out. If you're in the mood to make love, you're going to put something on that makes love.
So then you ask yourself, if we're talking about negative music that's portraying you as a gangster, you ask what place does that fit into your life if not those times in your life where you - there is a possibility that you might want to be a gangster or you might, you know, have a disposition to be a gangster. You know, this music thing is a lot more serious than I think people let on or even acknowledge. And I'm not just talking about individuals who listen to it. I'm talking about from the guys who write it to the guys who perform it to the radio stations that play it.
CHIDEYA: So what's ahead for you, Lyfe? I mean, are you going back in the studio? Touring? Any film, or anything else like that? What's your next steps?
Mr. JENNINGS: My next step, a furniture line called "Lyfe Jennings Collections." Trying to drop that later on this year. I'm definitely doing some acting. I just come from L.A., the Howard Fine studio. We did two months of acting training down there. A children's book series. Trying to drop at the beginning of the year. I also just started a new label which is distributed through Universal. And I already started working on my new album which I'm really, really excited about. That's coming next year. So I'm just - I'm doing a lot right now.
CHIDEYA: You're like that sketch on "Living Color." "Me Got 12 Job."
Mr. JENNINGS: Right, right, right, but, you know, when you have the opportunity to become busy, you know, you really need to take advantage of it. I'm trying to take full advantage of it.
(Soundbite of Lyfe Jennings song)
Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) Baby I'm a star, nothing but the heavens above me...
CHIDEYA: That was R&B artist Lyfe Jennings. His latest CD "Lyfe Changes" hits stores today. He joined us from radio station WHHH in Indianapolis, Indiana.
That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site nprnewsandnotes.org. News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. I'm Farai Chideya. This is News & Notes.