Lyfe Jennings eased into the left-of-mainstream scene a few years ago as a promising R&B/soul crooner with a particularly interesting backstory and material that did none of it justice. His debut album, Lyfe 268-192, was recorded a short time after Jennings was released from prison, having served a decade in jail since the age of 15 on arson charges. It showcased a young, gritty voice that narrated its owner’s arc thus far with endless, pleonastic “spoken interludes” rather than through the album’s castrated new-age slow jams. On this and his sophomore outing, 2006’s The Phoenix, Jennings thrashed in the winds of music and morality, a Kantian agent of love grooves, either a more dangerous John Legend or a gentler R. Kelly or really neither, but also torn by a deeper imperative – his own evolving worldview.

His first two albums displayed a young, emotionally stunted lover, Janus-like in his duality. Jennings sings on one 268-192 song, “There’s nothing in the world I won’t do for you,” but recants on another track when he discovers his dream girl has kids: “I don’t wanna take that chance, please don’t take offense/I just don’t need that kinda drama on my conscience.” Later on the album, a “crazy, lazy lady” does have his baby, only to repay him by seeking child support so she can stay “on welfare/She ain’t needy, she greedy.” The ugly rant ends with Jennings’ character in court, having evaded his duties.

On Phoenix, Jennings’ frustrations only widened his spectrum of extremes; his girl is “amazing like being baptized in the Nile” one moment and the next is being told to “stick that attitude in your purse/Straighten up your face before I pull over.” His flightiness is made worse by apparent fear of a sonic pigeonhole, shifting from a Young Buck–guested thug love warning to silky, baby-faced dance pop.

“It wasn’t that I was unsure whether or not I wanted to go to these other genres of music,” says Jennings on a break from a radio tour. “But I don’t think that I had listened to these other genres enough. `For example`, maybe you had to go through baseball or basketball to find out that’s not what you wanted to do. I think my first album I wrote at a lot of different times `in` my life.”

With Lyfe Change, Jennings finally finds his true self by embracing and owning his bipolar persona. The frantic peaks and valleys are in the past (and listener irritation along with them), and his hesitation to cement a signature sound no longer plays as inexperienced timidity but confident experimentation. Morally, he’s become more assured, ironically, by expressing less assuredness in the dogma of his views. The most glaring change is how Jennings has set aside the relationship pettiness in favor of the feminine divine (however unpolished he remains).

“It more or less reflects a maturity,” explains Jennings. “`In relationships` I’ve had some good situations and some bad ones. And I found that most of those bad situations are because a woman has been done bad by a man. So I feel like before we get to the physical part, I gotta clean her up mentally.”

Album standout “Midnight Train” is proof that he means it. A sequel of sorts to “She Got Kids” off his debut (the aforementioned “I can’t raise someone else’s kids” tale), the Gladys Knight–inspired ballad instructs a mystery woman to pack up her kids, hop on a train and arrive quickly into his open arms. It’s as if Jennings’ romantic lead has realized the mistake he made years ago. Over the song’s subdued folk guitar and producer Rich “Killa” Keller’s strings, it’s one of the most dramatic moments put to wax this year.

“I went into the studio and freestyled that whole song and it turned out to be the best song on the album,” says Jennings. “It’s all freestyle. It’s like two takes.”

Another sign of Jennings’ wiser side occurs on “It’s Real,” an insistent, bass-heavy safe-sex missive. Whereas the old Lyfe touted abstinence (at least on the ladies’ part), it seems the singer has come around to a global rationality.

“I was at a CDC convention `Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which condemns the Bush administration’s funding of abstinence-only programs that ignore birth-control education` and everybody was pledging what they were gonna do to bring about AIDS awareness; some people pledged time, some people pledged money. I pledged a song on my album and that’s how `“It’s Real”` came about,” Jennings says.

Jennings demonstrates his new confidence in unexpected ways, as with an uplifting take on Suzanne Vega’s ’90s classic “Tom’s Diner” (album opener “Keep On Dreaming”).

“I be excited about that ‘Tom’s Diner’ song because it’s just the melody,” says Jennings. “People can take that melody and feel however they want to feel about it. It’s not like it’s about something specific. It’s just that rhythmic ‘da da da da.’ It can `apply` to any situation in your life, man.”

An even brighter spot on Lyfe Change: no more interludes. Jennings finally lets his songs do his storytelling for him, and with songs about spirituality and working-class plight, he’s not dwelling on his autobiography for much longer. “For real, I feel blessed,” he says. “Even though I went to prison … in retrospect I’m so glad it happened. Imagine if I had `gone` when I was 35.” When asked to elaborate on the reason for his sentence, Jennings declines for fear of glorifying the ex-con life. “A kid came up to me one time and told me, ‘Man, I can go to jail and write my whole album just like you.’ So I really stay away from `talking about` this prison thing. It’s a part of my life, but it’s not the main part.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong state of mind.”

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