AH, THE THINGS we do for street cred. All easy-rolling cadence and juicy boasts ("I'm eatin' mangos in Trinidad with attorneys"), John Forte swiped the spotlight from Wyclef on last year's "We Tryin' to Stay Alive" as casually as 'Clef had plundered his hit from the Bee Gees. On his self-produced solo debut, however, Forte atones for that slip into R&B perdition with an early album blast against "all these niggas' records sounding happy." The conscious distance he maintains here from the Fugees' conditional optimism is as much a matter of ego as ideology. Poly Sci is all about skills, all about ghetto stress, all about "reality." But mostly, it's all about John Forte.
Forte imagines himself a student of an East Coast Rakim-to-Nas tradition, typified by MCs who deliberately flatten their delivery to better emphasize their lyrically baroque patterns of internal and half rhymes. A typically circular flow moves from "Call my lawyer" to "a De La Hoya/Fight on," rhymes "Larry Fishburne" with "Hawthorne," then doubles back via the line "with no signal light on." But as with that other reigning humorless street poet, Jay-Z, Forte's narcissism oozes through his reserve and breaks the concentration a listener needs to scan such intricate poetry. As he confesses in a rare moment of insight, "Ain't nothin' changed/I'm stuck on myself." And though he doesn't stoop to bitch-baiting (Lauryn Hill would stop returning his calls), it's from a lack of interest rather than principle. "(PBE) Powerful Beautiful Excellent" applies all three adjectives to his wondrous self rather than the shorty he's supposedly macking, and "All You Gotta Do" is about the inconvenience of having women wanting to sleep with you when you've got a hit record.
Whatever style Forte adopts for his backing tracks--be it reggae lilt, Gregorian chant, or girlie chorus--he isolates only what is oppressive and repetitive. But in spite of himself, the overall sound is brighter and his bass lines more (tsk tsk) R&B-inflected than most discerning hip-hop heads will nod approval for. In fact, Forte's Fugee comrades may have saddled his conscience with a new radio-ready smash. On "Ninety Nine (Flash the Message)," Wyclef and Pras reconfigure Nena's Neu!-Wave novelty hit "99 Luftballoons" with a dance-floor artistry that's both immediate and nuanced. If it hits, maybe Forte will be tempted to compromise his principles next time. If not, there may be no next time, a sorry fate for a guy who deserves a second chance to reconcile himself with his potential popularity.
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