It’s not too often that the most intelligent albums are also the most full of feeling, but I think Lyfe Jennings’ The Phoenix is right up there in both qualities. It strikes me as one of the most interesting albums of the year, and I haven’t seen it get much attention so far (forgive me if I’m wrong – I read so little of the music press these days).

Mostly the trappings here are hip hop – spoken bits between the tracks talking about his life: crime, jail, women; the music is closer to hip hop than R&B, when it isn’t stripped down and simple piano backing; full of references and little quotations (not usually actual samples) from old records; guest appearances from Three 6 Mafia and Young Buck. However, he’s a singer, not a rapper, and one very much in the old soul tradition that I love best – he’s much closer to early ’70s Hi in style than to 21st Century soul/R&B. Al Green is a really obvious touchstone for him, but he reminds me more of Hi labelmate O.V. Wright. He’s a terrific singer, high with very rough edges, and the sincerity of his vocal matches his very autobiographical material. The other thing that sets it apart from most records from black acts these days is the thoughtfulness of the political and personal views, the opposition to misogyny being one of the more obvious examples, but the frankness about his own feelings and mistakes is very impressive too. The recent single S.E.X., which was what made me get this album, is advising young women to not cave in to sexual pressure, and is one of my favourite singles of the year.

This is his second album, by the way – the first part of his life story (up to getting out of jail after a term for arson) can be found on Lyfe 268-192 (his serial number in prison), which is nearly as strong as this.