It is not without irony that one of the most innocent-looking, open-minded rap artists the industry had to offer is currently serving a sentence of 14 years for conspiracy to distribute drugs. For years rappers have tried to outdo each other with claims of the ‘weight’ they have allegedly ‘pushed’. John Forté certainly wasn’t one of them. In fact, he seemed to be anything but the street-raised kid who had to sell drugs just to make a living. So when the news came last year that Forté was arrested in a DEA operation at Newark International Airport when he was handed a suitcase that contained over 30 pounds of liquid cocaine, the rap world was shocked. Forté maintained his innocence, claiming he thought he would pick up money for a friend. Unfortunately for him the prosecution was able to present evidence such as tapped phone calls that suggested that Forté was a key figure in the transportation of drugs from Houston to New York. It was also said that he used his status in the music industry to recruit female couriers, two of which helped set Forté up after they were caught by authorites.
If you’re already familiar with the name John Forté, chances are you’ve met him through the Fugees. He was on “Cowboys” and “Family Business” off the multi-million-selling “The Score”, he assisted Wyclef Jean on “Tryin’ To Stay Alive” and “Street Jeopardy”, and was featured in the all-star line-up of “Rumble in the Jungle” (for the “When We Were Kings” documentary). At some point it looked like John Forté was a full-fledged Refugee Allstar. He released his debut album in 1998, “Poly Sci”, which spawned the minor crossover hit “Ninety Nine (Flash the Message)”. As the Fugees fell apart, people were wondering where Forté might end up, but certainly nobody could have imagined he’d end up where he is right now. What could be more telling about the image of John Forté than Bizarre from D12, certainly not an easy-going character, describing one of his more serene moments with “I’m laid back like John Forté”?
14 years go way beyond the “Protective Custody” Forté was rhyming about on the “Hip Hop For Respect” project. In retropsect, you can take his verse on there either way, whether suspecting he knew a thing or two about drugs or thinking he was framed just because he was black and successful:
“El Capitano keep my guns high
I run from New York cause I’m alumni
The fact I’m in it, half street, half academic
I memorize my stash number, the flash number
your pig stench, plus your badge number
your precinct, and the Irish lad you served under
I’m probaly grinding drugs, come from hittin’ the kitchen
a black man in a pretty car will fit the description
You gettin’ informed quick
You racist fuck, I was born in it”
But the judicial system says the crime has been committed, so the time has to be served. While awaiting trial, Forté was able to record his sophomore album. It is, by all means, a beautiful album. Naturally, there’s a bitterness about it, but in the end optimism has the upper hand. “I, John” is an at the same time simple and sophisticated journey through the life and times of John Forté. The fact that it’s more personal than most rap records out there today might not only be attributed to the bleak days it was recorded in but also the fact that it’s not really a rap album.
Forté says his situation has forced him “to look within for another voice.” That voice is a singing voice. The rapper John FortÃ© is rarely ever heard on this record. Instead, I’m tempted to say, we get to hear John Forté, period. It’s not that all his songs suddenly are so sentimental that he has to sing to express his feelings. Maybe he just felt the same as other rappers today do, who feel limited by the form of expression known as rapping. Lately we are treated with more and more hip-hop albums that don’t fit the common beats-rhymes-pattern anymore: “Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections”, Q-Tip’s new one “Kamaal The Abstract”, Ja Rule is trying to clear his throat while he trots down the pop path, Mos Def has picked up a guitar and started to sing, Wyclef and Lauryn have been doing it for the longest, even “The Eminem Show” feels out of tune with rap as we know them.
What makes “I, John” special is that it doesn’t cater to the rap audience. It’s not a rap album trying to sound pop either. So what is it, then? It’s pop, and it’s damn good pop. It’s a zillion times better than Pras’ “Ghetto Superstar” which comes to mind when speaking of pop and rap. With a high singing voice that still has enough ‘imperfections’ to convey honesty, seriousness and emotion (think Nelly Furtado), chanting in a way similar to Wyclef, but not as melodical and without straining for effect so much, he sets off to tell stories of love found and love lost. “What a Difference” almost certainly talks about the day of his arrest, what it changed and what it didn’t change:
“You see, the only thing I’ll ever miss is kisses from my ma
I don’t club don’t more, ain’t no twistin’ my arm
I smoke a cigarette, drink beer and write a new song
so that my spirit’s here even if I’m gone”
Realizing this record will be a testament, Forté seemingly didn’t want to waste time rapping about himself. So he shuts up and sings, putting his raps in brackets where he tells rappers that they talk too much. Concerning the pending case, he’s neither trying to distract from it nor taking the defense into the recording studio. What first reads like a confession (the cathartic “Been There, Done That”) is really a song about loyalty. And so he tries to regain the harmony lost in a relationship (“Harmonize”), or plays the simple yet sincere man trying to get with a woman with higher ambitions (“What You’re Used To”). Strictly avoiding soft ballads and slow jams, he continues with “How Could I”, “Out of Bed”, “Take Time, Slow Down” or “Lady”, again and again showing respectable songwriting ability.
Outside of the relationship area that ability shines especially bright on “All the Pretty People”, probably my favorite cut of the album. This is a very clever song that examines our sometimes strange relationships with all these showbiz stars we look up to when things down here don’t look so great. Another highlight is “Dearest Father”, a tongue-in-cheek reckoning with his absent dad. Anger is an emotion Forté does not let surface on “I, John”, as even here he emphasizes his love: “How can we not show love regardless / although more than half of my friends are fatherless?”
His current situation comes into play again in “Beware” with its warning of police informants, and finally the closing “Reunion”, dedicated to family and friends. Switching between stating the simple (“Trouble Again” w/ Tricky) and contemplating the complicated (“Hungry”), John Forté asks the right (creative) questions and always comes up with an (artistic) answer. Of course, this is still a rapper trying to sing, so don’t make any false assumptions about his vocal capabilities, but musically “I, John” has so much more to offer than your average rap album that I’m actually starting to wonder if all those people turning their backs on hip-hop are right. John Forté in any case feels the need to evolve:
“Most music make me sickly, situation sticky
Call cross the water to touch my man Tricky
Drink up, smoke a stoge and we all link up
Heard the words in the paper, now what will they think up?
They had me locked timin’
I came home, started singin’ cause I stopped rhymin’
I’m disgusted with rap
A new album, new crew, new friends, that’s that
I passed the baton, my arms reach longer than that”
Too bad his arms will only reach from behind bars for a long time now. Without approving of his wrong-doing, I suggest you let John Forté reach out and touch you with “I, John”.