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The Gospel of Lyfe: 11 Years Later, The Gospel Album of The Year

To call this a “Christian” album is perhaps a bridge too far, but this
album, consciously or unconsciously, places Christianity on trial. Lyfe de­m­on­strates an ethical conscience missing from virtually all popular music and creates a character, “Lyfe,” with incredible dimension—virtually unheard of in today’s Bruno Mars world of caricature. 268-192 will make you laugh, make you cry, but, above all, make you think about what you’re doing, what you have done, and where your life is headed from here. That, beloved, is the very definition of gospel music. It is also what today’s gospel music fails, spectacularly, to do.

“Crying is like
taking your soul to the laundromat.”

I'd actually given up on music altogether. I mean, I really didn’t think black musicians, specifically, made actual music anymore. For years, now, I’ve been cycling around town on my bike with Gladys Knight & The Pips crooning “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” in my headset. Pop R&B music had become home to the filthiest lyrics imaginable, and the only subject anyone—from struggling unknown to Beyoncé Knowles—could seem to write about was sex. Growing up Pentecostal, I was forbidden to listen to “worldly” music, which was banned from my house when Mom got saved. In the old days, when Ma got saved, the whole house got saved—whether the rest of the family wanted to or not. [Joshua 24:15] We didn’t have a choice; I mean, the dog got saved, the cat got saved. The first thing to go were Sly & The Family Stone, The Jackson Five and the Supremes, the Temptations, both Kool and The Gang; all of them replaced by Inez Andrews, The Reverend Isaac Douglas, James Cleveland, and the Mighty Clouds. Always the rebel, my sister risked Mom’s wrath by playing Al Green and Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass behind Mom’s back while she was out working two and three jobs to struggle to feed us, but I considered all that stuff way too worldly and demonic.

I kind of laugh at that choice today, considering how resolutely demonic pop music has become. As bad as so much of it is spiritually, most of today’s music is creatively bankrupt as well. Write this down someplace: there is more to life than sex. Adolescents, in the throes of hormone-raged puberty, have sex on the brain day and night (and the record labels know it). And, thanks largely to Bart Simpson, popular culture teaches kids today that under-achievement (which, in the old days, we simply called “laziness”) is not only okay but is a justifiable and viable personal choice.

Today’s music has one basic message: Reject God. Most everything I hear from “secular” artists denies God if not specifically Jesus Christ and the Gospel. And, unlike my Mom, today’s Moms apparently give their kids a choice: listen to what you want, watch what you want on TV, see what you want on the Internet. Church Optional. When I was growing up, the only option I had about church was whether I would leave the house on my own, fully dressed, or get dragged their in my pajamas. There was no Dad in my house, so Mom set her house in order: there will be no music, no TV, no gadget, phone, no posters on my wall that does not glorify God and lift up the name of Jesus. Parents these days are far too cowardly to police their own households; their own lack of faith, ethics, and moral consistency poisoning the atmosphere for their children to whom Jesus is some abstract concept; some artifact of yestertime.

I never understand Church Folk who play secular music on their car stereos. Even on their way to church; the filthiest Screw Me music hippity-hopping out of their cars as they turn corners on their way to God’s house. Where is your ethics? Where is your testimony? While studying martial arts, Sensei Wiles taught us to get our minds focused on the dojo. On the way to the dojo, in the dojo, on our way home from the dojo: no influences (music, books, comic books, newspapers) that are not about martial arts. Similarly, beloved, on your way to church, you should be preparing not only for worship but for warfare; not only for what God has prepared for you this day but for what Satan has prepared for you as well.

But there you are, gliding along with your AC on, humming along to music that sets your mind toward sweaty humping rather than sincere worship. Your praise is already compromised because you can’t turn that mess off even for the drive to church. And then, right after church, the spiritual feeding you’ve just had becomes morally compromised because, the moment you start your car, there’s Satan again, shaking his booty in your face. Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, like we’re just animals humping all the time. Many Church Folk have their kids in the backseat, singing along to this filth, to and from church.

Beyond this lack of spiritual discipline, I am deeply upset by the egregious lack of scope and scale modern media presents to our intellectual palette. Every movie is a violent shoot-‘em-up (denies God) or some foolish sex farce (denies God). All we watch on TV are the stupidest, dumbed-down, intellectually bankrupt nonsense imaginable—nearly all of which denies God. But, we’re “Christians.” I mean, we jump around and run back and forth and cry out and claim that we love God, right?

My sister loved my mother, or so she claimed. But she never obeyed her. Ever. So, what good was her “love?” I didn’t stop listening to secular music because I feared Mom would beat me; I stopped listening to it because that’s what she asked me to do; because I was her son and shared her values. Are you God’s son? Why won’t you share God’s values?

Must Be Nice

I was riding along with a dear friend, a Christian who nonetheless is tooling around town with the Grope Me music on, and out of her playlist comes this old man playing solo guitar while chastising Church Folk for being phonies. It took me a moment to even hear him because I’d usually just tune out whatever nonsense was coming from her speakers, but I grabbed her iPhone and scrolled back to hear the song again. I’d assumed it was, at best, mocking the Gospel itself if not gospel music; a parody of sorts. But, no, “Made Up My Mind” was something I’d never encountered before or since: a disarmingly honest and heartfelt plea not to Church Folk but to God Himself. This guy was talking to God. If he was talking to God, in a sincere manner, by definition, that made this song a *psalm.* And, if this song was a psalm, by definition, this was gospel music—whether Lyfe Jennings sees it that way or not.

I had never heard of the guy, and assumed this was a new release. No, my friend told me, that CD was eleven years old. I was startled, amazed, and deeply pleased that a contemporary black artist was willing or even capable of exposing not only his inner thoughts, beliefs and moral conflicts (268-192 is all about moral conflicts), but that he was both willing and able to express them so artistically and dynamically.

Back To One B in October of 2008, Jennings got into an altercation with his former manager and fiancé, Joy Bounds. He was charged with a DUI test refusal, criminal tre­spas­sing, dis­charg­ing a weapon near a street, pos­se­ssion of a fire­arm by a con­vict­ed fel­on and flee­ing or at­temp­ting to elude a po­lice of­ficer. He re­turned to pris­on un­der a three and one-half year sen­tence.

White folks will scoff if I call Lyfe Jennings a modern-day Bob Dylan. The metaphor is not quite right, but this is the closest analogy I can come up with. Jennings is an urban folk singer. There aren’t a whole lot of black pop stars who play any instrument at all, let alone an acoustic guitar. Then again, Jennings is something of a throwback, grounded firmly in Al Green territory. And, not that he’s any less capable of singing Give Me The Drawers songs than Reverend Al, but for 268-192, Jennings chose instead to write his musical biography. This did not exclude sex but placed sexuality within its proper context; not as some deified, unrealistic thing to be worshipped, but as fulfilling its proper role in human existence. In 268-192 sex exists in a realistic context, bringing with it joy, elation, hope and love, but also responsibility, heartbreak, stalking and persecution. In “S.E.X.,” his biggest hit (click to play), Jennings teaches our daughters sex ed more responsibly and effectively than the church ever has:

Life’s a trip
Virgin just turned 17 and finally got some hips
Hustlers on the block go crazy when you lick ya lips
But they just want relation / They don’t want relationship

The block is packed
Baby gotta attitude and proud to holla back
Momma’s givin’ advice but she ain’t tryna hear that
Not because it's wrong, just her delivery is wack

(Shay get ya behind in this house, if I see you with another boy, I swear)

Life is rough,
You say that you’re not ready for sex, but you’re in love
He says if you’d really loved him, you would give it up
Mama says that’s just a line guys use to get ya stuff
Which one will you trust?

As I mention here, I'd never be allowed to teach youth at the church about human sexuality in an effective way. The mommies would lose their minds and threaten to leave the church if we had anything more than the toothless and clearly impotent 1960's charade run by well-meaning matrons talking around the subject. Jennings doesn’t make sex his God, but makes—clearly and obviously—Jesus his God; venting his frustration not with God or Jesus or even the church itself so much as with the antiethical behavior of the people who go there.

This is the recurrent theme, Jennings’ search for God. The entire CD is peppered with catchphrases straight out of Sunday morning (“I done stole everything from dreams to wedding rings, auctioned off my soul for material things” “Today I'm living proof... word became true...” “So y’all keep me in prayer…” ). Jennings speaks in parables, each cut being a little story. There is absolutely no fat here whatsoever; every note of the CD is riveting and revealing, Jennings asking questions few other secular stars—so focused on their cash, drugs and genitals—would even think to ask. What is life (and Lyfe) all about? Is this it? Money? Sex? Is that all there is for me? All there is for my kids?

Jennings makes a plausible case for armed robbery (“Stick Up Kid”) as a means of avoiding jail for failure to pay child support (“Greedy”) to a woman out for revenge upset that Lyfe had finally found happiness with someone else (“Smile”). He gives voice to countless black men who, fearing arrest, live their lives on the run and feel shame at having had to abandon their own children because of politically-motivated ridiculous and impossible-to-meet monthly assessments. Even more heartbreaking, Jennings makes an ethical choice to forego (at least for the length of the song) a romantic relationship (“She Got Kids”) with a single mother because, “All I want to do is prevent those kids from being hurt again.” Startling stuff; things I simply do not hear from the empty-calorie, low-information cussing and humping music blasted out of SUV’s everywhere I go. Who is this guy and how did I miss him for eleven years?

The Gospel of Lyfe

To call this a “Christian” album is perhaps a bridge too far, but this album, consciously or unconsciously, places Christianity on trial, and Jennings has a case. He demonstrates an ethical conscience missing from virtually all popular music and creates a character, “Lyfe,” with incredible dimension—virtually unheard of in today’s Bruno Mars world of caricature. 268-192 will make you laugh, make you cry, but, above all, make you think about what you’re doing, what you have done, and where your life is headed from here. That, beloved, is the very definition of gospel music. It is also what today’s gospel music fails, spectacularly, to do.

Gospel music today exists to stuff cash into the pockets of Christian entertainers. Period. That’s it. Gospel music ministers to no one, educates no one, enlightens no one. “Christian” worship music teaches us to literally, physically, turn our backs on people like Lyfe while we practice escapism through self-indulgent emotional fits and blather on about me, me, me, me. Gospel music takes no risks, asks no questions. It exists within the safety of Things Christians Approve Of, while 268-192 disturbingly yet accurately defines the Sunday morning experience as “…a fucking fashion show” (“Stick Up Kid”). There is not a gospel artist breathing today who is as brave as Lyfe Jennings, whose debut project could have and may have been openly mocked by audiences too addicted to the philosophical flatbread being offered by most of today’s musicians. It was likely also reviled by Church Folk, offended by this ex-con daring to call them out.

But call them out he does. In virtually every bar of music on this amazing disc Lyfe preaches, from A-to-Z, in a kind of Bobby Womack arrested growl. While he does let the occasional expletive fly, this is far and away from today’s standard fare being unbearably profanity-ridden (and usually to no end). I mean, something like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—a musical masterpiece—actually used profanity to an artistic degree. Whether I agreed with it or not, it made sense to be there. Most of today’s musicians are simply nowhere near as talented as Dre or, for that matter, Jay Z or Lyfe Jennings, who bring a level of artistic discipline to their work rather than just cuss for the sake of cussing.

I have not explored Jennings’ subsequent releases, so I may add some comments on them in a sidebar. I don’t hold him to some high moral or intellectual standard, though I do have expectations of his maintaining and raising the creative standard for contemporary urban music. If Jennings can raise that bar, can get young artists thinking beyond their guns, their money, and their penis, that alone qualifies Lyfe Jennings as a bonafide evangelist. Transforming lives is what preachers do; we are in the business of changing peoples’ minds. 268-192 changed mine. That alone qualifies it as one of the best gospel albums I’ve ever heard.

Christopher J. Priest
23 August 2015