After receiving a copy of John Forté‘s latest release, I John, I must admit that I was not particularly optimistic. After recent disappointing releases by his more high profile Fugees comrades Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, I expected little from the junior member whose disappointing debut album, Poly Sci, did little to refute the popular idea that he was simply along for the Fugees’ incredible ride. But, as the album’s first track muses, what a difference a day makes.
On this, we are given access to a different John Forté. Gone is the artist who spread himself and his previous album too thin by trying to serve multiple masters. In our full view is an incredibly talented and daring artist willing to look beyond the limited and limiting scope of mainstream hip-hop and into generally uncharted territory. I, John represents a creative and personal awakening that results in a remarkably imaginative and groundbreaking work.
Tragically, though certainly not coincidentally, John Forté‘s creative breakout comes amid a well-publicized personal crisis. As most hip-hop fans know, John Forté is currently serving a 14-year federal prison sentence (of which he must serve 85%) for drug possession charges. Regardless of his guilt or innocence (which he still maintains), the album reflects the pain, disillusionment, and frustration of a man wrestling with a bleak reality. Like many tortured artists, Forté used the very the things that torment him to create his most genuine and powerful work to date. I, John is an eclectic collection of songs and genres that fit together flawlessly despite the absence of a singular theme or feel. In fact, the beauty of the CD is that the songs, all written and produced by Forté himself, are the products of the artist’s musically unfettered mind and not an attempt at pleasing a particular audience. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine that anyone, except radio-friendly pop and commercial rap fans, could not be thoroughly satisfied with Forté‘s mix of hip-hop, reggae, rock, jazz, and blues.
The album begins with the smooth “What a Difference a Day Makes”, on which Forte discusses his new perspectives and aspirations. From the moment you hear Dinah Washington’s beautiful voice over the laid back groove, you know that this album is going to be something special. The track is followed by the hypnotic “Harmonize”, which features excellent vocals from fellow Refugee Camp member Jeni Fujita. The album then takes a turn with the slower “What You’re Used To” and the reggae-rock influenced “Trouble Again”, one of the tracks on which Forté actually raps.
Unlike many recent hip-hop guest appearances, which feature mediocre artists or half-hearted lyrics, I, John features top quality artists at their best. Tricky (“Trouble Again”) and Carly Simon (“Been There Done That”) add energy to already dynamite songs. Esthero marvelously complements Forté‘s vocals on the album’s best track, “How Could I?” with her own beautifully sung lyrics: “I read my horoscope just for fun / And apparently I’m having doubts about us / I laughed it off and put the water on for the tea / And I knew when you arose that this was where I ought to be / How, how could I, in all reality imagine life without us?”
Unfortunately, this gem of an album will more than likely be lost in the mainstream shuffle of thin, uninspired, radio friendly party music. This is particularly sad considering the potential of this album to positively influence hip-hop. I, John, like Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation and Outkast’s Aquemini, is the type of pioneering hip-hop album that can expand or, at the very least, expose the realm of creative possibility in hip-hop. The overwhelming imaginativeness, intelligence, and honesty of this LP from beginning to end make it a must-buy album and a potential classic.