John Forté recently told the Village Voice that he speaks with conservative Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch on the telephone every week. The Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer from Brooklyn sincerely converses with the man who petitioned President George Bush to pardon Forté from prison after serving nine years of a 14-year sentence for transporting 30 pounds of liquid cocaine from Texas to New Jersey. Hatch believes that Forté has been rehabilitated and offers the New Yorker advice on life and music.
While the cultural differences between Forté and Hatch might seem vast, this actual connection makes sense, simply because music is a true unifier that brings diverse people together. As Forté notes, Hatch is also a musician, albeit of country and pop more than reggae and rap. The creative essence of the art is the same no matter what genre. Forté himself proves to be the personification of that truth. He began his career studying classical violin at Phillip Exeter Academy before producing and co-writing for the hip-hop group the Fugees and then entering the world of rock.
StyleFree, Forté’s new EP, is his first commercial release since he left prison. He dubs it “a collection of seven songs chronicling my experience (for better and worse).” Not much to show for nine years in the joint, but then again, this is just the beginning. The EP has a cathartic feel, which Forté acknowledges. He looks for resolution and meaning in his experiences. Nine years doing anything, being anyplace, would have a strong impact on anyone. One can only imagine how the 34-year-old musician grew and developed during his years inside.
Forté has had time to reflect on the meaning of life. He says he’s learned many lessons, but he doesn’t quite explain what they are. He knows better than to preach because there are no simple answers to the mystery of everyday existence. Acknowledging our shared humanity and trying to uplift our spirits is enough. The messages of songs like “Play My Cards for Me” and “More Beautiful Now” are heartbreakingly positive without being cloying. Part of this is due to the earnest way in which Forté delivers his points. He sings, more than raps, in a hushed voice, about human relationships.
This is also true of more edgy material, like “Nervous”. Of course, Forté may have more reason than the rest of us to be paranoid, but in a land where one out of every 100 citizens is incarcerated, the broad implications of his narratives carry weight. The general heaviness of the EP will probably limit its popularity. The record’s centerpiece, “Breaking of a Man”, contains autobiographical details that old fans will relish as they learn where Forté’s head is at, but those who never heard of him before will find these memoirs somewhat clichéd. For example, “here to free the world” resonates one way from a man recently released from prison, but comes off as unearned boasting from a less experienced person.
Forté remains a vital artist who analyzes society and himself in search of visions and truth. In addition, all seven tracks are well-crafted and delivered. While he might not be sure what to tell the world yet, except maybe for proclaiming his existence, prison has not diminished his spirit or talent.