Very Much Like a Death

On Monday, September 3, 2001, shortly after John Forté completed his second album, i, John, he and some friends from New York were in a swanky Houston hotel called the Lancaster having a party. They stayed up late eating french fries, drinking White Russians, and listening to Reasonable Doubtover and over again. Forté spoke of a party he was going to throw at the end of the week in New York at Spa. He would buy out the bar as Mark Ronson spun. The day after he would fly off to Dublin with his girlfriend. He had that New York of-course-we'll-conquer-the-world swagger. He repeatedly said, in a female lilt, "More champagne, Mr. Forté?" There was no champagne around, he just meant the partying and high living would not, could not stop. The next day everyone put on suits and went to court.

Forté is a child of Brownsville, his mother's only son, who won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the most prestigious prep school in America. After a year at NYU, he found his way into Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill's Refugee Clique. His debut solo album, Poly Sci, had a few great moments, but the Hiphop Nation paid no mind. He was a rapper more book-smart than street-smart and that's never been a winning combination. Since then, he's become friends with Carly Simon, learned how to sing, and been arrested for possession of 31 pounds of cocaine worth $1.5 million.

On September 4, Forté testified that he'd met a man with no day job who thought nothing of buying thousand-dollar shirts and multiple bottles of multi-hundred-dollar champagne. The two began talking about helping one another professionally. In July of 2000 a pair of girls from New York traveled to Mexico to pick up something. On their way back they were arrested. At a motel near Houston they called Forté repeatedly, frantically. He told them, "Put the ice cream in the tub." The phone was tapped. A day later, the girls arrived at Newark Airport. Forté testified at length that he thought the suitcase they handed him was filled with money. I testified that "cream" is, indeed, hiphop slang for currency. But the suitcase did not contain money. And Forté was surrounded by ATF agents.

On the stand, wearing a double-breasted, high-necked black suit a bit too stylish for the occasion, he seemed neither sad, nor sorry, nor scared, but smart and smug. Back at the hotel, the party recommenced. Perhaps it was a blues mentality, an urge to laugh in the face of unfathomable tragedy. Perhaps it was overconfidence. Perhaps it was an act: In private he was quiet, moody, afraid, drinking, not eating, and taking antidepressants.

On the 5th, in her closing, the prosecutor said, "These New Yorkers think they can come down here with their money and their celebrity and fool us hicks."

On the 6th, moments before the jury came back with their verdict, a juror's daughter told Forté's girlfriend not to worry. The jury had liked him. When Forté heard that, the clouds that had engulfed him for over a year suddenly lifted. He could see himself at Spa. He could smell Dublin.

The 12 filed in. On the charge of possession he was found guilty.

Forté had spent the previous year in fear of that moment. He'd been on house arrest, planning his defense and writing and recording, knowing he had to be finished before the trial, knowing he might not get another chance to speak publicly. Where Jigga and Puff responded to their trials by boasting of their innocence on wax, Forté found himself focused by the pressure and reinvented his musical voice to accommodate his new mind. On i, Johnhe is primarily a blues singer, working his way through mournfully mellow songs about the pointlessness of celebrity, the pettiness of club life, the juvenile excesses of hiphop, and the new loneliness of his life. "My cigarette smoke has long since dissolved," he sings. "Nothing to hide behind/No one to give applause/Now I'm humbled." He details his new reality, his sense that time is not a friend. "The only thing I'll ever miss is kisses from Mom," he sings. "I don't club no more/ I smoke a cigarette, drink, then we write a new song so that/my spirit's here even if I'm gone." He closes with a searing ballad in which he faces his family. "Even after all of your warnings/we still managed to meet with harm." He asks if he will remain part of the family, if they'll accept him when he returns from his long exile. "Will you still remember us as family?/Will you not place judgment upon us?/When we one day join you at the reunion?"

Whatever keep it real means to you—repping your hood or wearing your own jewels in the video—nothing is more real than putting the facts of your life all up in your art the way Pryor, Biggie, and Jigga have. Nothing is more real than the rhyming and singing of the man deathly afraid of what is ahead of him, the John Forté of i, John. If ever a piece of art has shown how the caged bird sings, it is i, John.

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