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It’s hard to judge the trajectory of an artist. Is Harper Lee a less important author because she only wrote one book? Or is Kerouac’s success measured in book spines? The music business is pretty unforgiving when it comes to one hit wonders. Songs like “Do You Love Me” by the Contours or Aha’s 1984 anthem “Take on Me” tend to be more of a target of ridicule than a source of inspiration. As they slip out of the mainstream, these artists and their songs are taken less an less seriously.
Lyfe Jennings is an artist whose career followed this path. The day after serving ten years in prison for arson, Jennings began recording a four-song demo to sell at his shows. He soon moved to New York where he performed at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night, and, after being booed at his first appearance, won five times in a row. This success led to a record deal with Columbia and appearances with everyone from Bun B to Three Six Mafia. His most successful single, “S.E.X.” reached #37 on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts. But it proved to be his last hit and Jennings faded from the spotlight soon after.
But “S.E.X.” was no Macarena. It’s a song about a young girl growing up in the ghetto trying to find her way sexually and, while it doesn’t quite promote abstinence it also doesn’t take the promiscuous posturing found in the lyrics of most male R&B singers. The real highlight of the record is its slow-moving, incredibly sparse arrangement. Drums, bass and piano pull backwards against Jennings’s raspy vocals generating a very unique rhythmic tension. It sounds like the band is fighting against its singer in a way that is perfect for a song about a young girl struggling with temptation.
Most folks would look at a story like Lyfe’s and say that he didn’t succeed. A few failed records and one semi-popular single is not the normal “Behind The Music” success story, but I think that the standards that we judge a career by are a little skewed. Seeing one of the members of the Kingsmen working as a garbage man, or seeing someone from the Sugar Hill Gang at the counter of the Stop and Shop, certainly doesn’t seem like a failure. If your music can connect with the rest of the world, even for just 3 minutes, then it did its job.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org