John Forté conducts all of his interviews by mail. Not because he's shy or eccentric, but because he doesn't have a phone. See, he's the only Grammy-winning convict at Pennsylvania's Lorreto Federal Penitentiary with a new album to promote.
Forté, 27, was behind bars when his confessional second album, I, John, was released in April. That's why he's done most of the interviews about it via letters from his cell.
"Spiritually, I've never been more free in my life," wrote the former Fugees confidant, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in November after being found guilty of possession of 31 pounds of liquid cocaine with intent to distribute. "I am comfortable in my skin ... [and] I have seen glimpses of life beyond these walls. One's 'state of mind' can be equivalent to one's 'state of grace.' My journey does not end here."
Forté's positive musical spirit is just one of the other ways he is different from his prison cohorts. Written in the months before his trial, the album is a moving portrait of a young man coming to grips with the error of his ways and transporting himself to a blissful place where his future can begin to look bright again.
Part diary, part dream, I, John, like the music of Fugees member Wyclef Jean, blends pop, rock, reggae, rap and jazz into a gumbo that's not quite hip-hop, but not exactly old-school soul, either. The 14-song autobiography takes you from the acoustic Latin folk of "What You're Used To" to the funk-hop of "Trouble Again," in which trip-hop pal Tricky drops some risqué rhymes about sniffing coke and sinning.
"I was on an emotional roller coaster," Forté wrote of the album's eclectic vibe. "I needed to express myself in different ways and tempos. Tricky came to the table with his ideas and inspirations. The end product is intriguing. His tone of voice against mine and the gravity of what he raps mirrors the song's metaphoric subconscious. The combination of the two couldn't be more relevant."
After growing up in the hardscrabble Brownsville area of Brooklyn, New York, Forté scored a scholarship to the elite Exeter Academy boarding school, where he studied the violin and got a taste of high-society life. He later hooked up with the Fugees and co-wrote and produced two songs on their Grammy-winning 1996 album, The Score.
His solo debut, the elegant gangsta album Poly Sci, was released in 1998 and executive produced by Wyclef. It featured songs such as "Ninety-Nine (Flash the Message)" which sampled the 1984 Nena hit "99 Luftballons" and was thick with boastful raps and a nonstop party atmosphere, including guest shots from DMX and Fat Joe.
If Poly Sci was the out-of-control party, I, John is the mellow morning after, a time of reckoning and assessment.
No song on the album tells that story more than the opener, "What a Difference." Sampling a languid jazz hook from late diva Dinah Washington's signature tune, "What a Difference a Day Makes," the slow-rolling funk-reggae jam is practically a three-minute tour of Forté's life. "I earned mine and went through it trying to make mine," Forté sings in his Bob Marley-esque honeyed rasp. "And now I look at the game and absolutely hate rhyming."
Although he was familiar with the Washington standard, Forté said it wasn't until he saw it used in the 1998 German film "Run Lola Run" that he began to understand the meaning behind it. "By that time I was under house arrest at my mother's place in New Jersey," he wrote. "I was emotionally touched by the truth of one day in one's life being so pivotal. I was determined to incorporate that theme in my new album." The song, one of the first written for the LP, then set the tone for all that came after it.
As evidenced by his almost total reliance on his scratchy singing voice over his rhyming skills, it is one of two songs on the album in which Forté appears to be turning his back on hip-hop. And while he does say "I'm disgusted with rap!" in "Trouble Again," Forté said the truth is deeper.
"Creatively, I wanted to evolve," he said. "I didn't and do not hate rhyming, I hate being labeled as ... only a rapper. I am and have always been a musician. Every so-called 'rapper' I know is a musician first and foremost... We don't just rap, we create music."
One of the more unexpected musical moments is a duet of sorts with '70s easy rock icon Carly Simon on the song "Been There, Done That." Friends with Simon's son, Ben Taylor, for years, Forté said it was no problem to get his "guru and inspiration, Mama C." to sing on the track. The acid-rock-meets-soul song, about a party posse that disappears when times get tough, features a ragged, menacing verse from Simon in which she screams, "Do not underestimate me/ People have before and ended up looking so silly."
Despite his bleak surroundings, Forté has seemingly managed to maintain the album's positive vibe during his prison sentence.
"I am a man of faith and hope," he wrote. "Instead of reclining in misery, I choose to celebrate my blessings. I have so much to be grateful for and I refuse to lose sight of that." Forté said he continues to write poems, songs, journal entries and letters as he awaits his appeal process, which is scheduled to begin in June.
"The road doesn't end here, this is but another facet of the journey," he said. "I've got more work to do in the business of music. I, John will be home soon. With love.