It’s been seven years since rapper/singer John Forte‘s [click to read] freedom looked doubtful with a 14 year federal sentence for possession with intent to
distribute. But he isn’t to be counted out just yet. Now, after receiving a Presidential pardon, Forte is back with StyleFree EP, his first commercial recording since 2002’s I, John [click to read].

Forte‘s StyleFree EP is what he described on his official website as “a collection of seven songs chronicling my experience (for better and worse)…since I came home in December.” And while the EP evokes a level of honesty and heartfelt emotion that any seven-year prison sentence would, Forte is often the victim of a formulaic Soft Rock pitfall, ultimately preventing the EP from achieving anything more than mediocrity.

In respects to its lyrical content, StyleFree vividly captures Forte‘s varied sentiments after his release from prison. It’s an honest, no holds barred portrayal of a man attempting to make sense of the time he lost to the system and fit into a society from which he been absent for so long. Whether he sings (“More Beautiful Now”) or spits (“Breaking of a Man”), Forte poetically illustrates his experiences with the verbal palette of Picasso. On the opening title track, he reflects upon his continuing struggle, saying “This ain’t the life I chose, but I’m trying to finish / To
build an army on the way, so I went in China’s image / For those who
fell, of course, this overwhelming force / Won’t be beheld by the riders
of the palest horse / My gift solemn breaks the form of the fifth
column / They’d rather that I’d rot in hell but I repel the bottom
.” Similarly, on the EP’s standout track “Nervous,” Forte verbally paints a picture of a society slowly breaking apart under the weight of everything from corrupt politics to subjective racial stereotypes.

Without a doubt, Forte finds his greatest successes when he sticks to rapping. Sadly, however, he only actually raps on three of the EP’s seven songs. The
problem with his musical experimentation isn’t him being a poor singer.
His singing voice is the baritone equivalent of Bobby Womack‘s rasp,
Pharoahe Monch‘s intonation and Ben Harper‘s delivery. The problem is that StyleFree finds him using his talent in fairly uninspired and derivative ways. Songs like “There We Are” and “Best That Love Could Be” appeal to a more formulaic, soft rock blueprint. The
former of the two takes a page out of Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson‘s
handbook, sounding like a cloyingly uplifting faux-alt rock jam. It’s
not something you’d expect or be happy to hear coming from a former producer for The Fugees [click to read].

Similarly,
the album’s production tends to stick to the same pattern throughout
each of the seven songs. He implements extensive use of a twangy
electric guitar and heavy drums for the majority of them, only deviating on “More Beautiful Now” with the use of haunting strings and “Play My Cards” with the warm acoustic guitar that comprises the beat. Unlike his rock-oriented
songs, the formula to which Forte sticks with the production works for
the most part. Songs like “Nervous” and “StyleFree,” on which he
appropriates the main riff from Bob James‘ frequently sampled
“Nautilus,” prove to be the EP’s best. Yet other songs, particularly
“There We Are” and “Best That Love Could Be,” feel painfully dull

John Forte‘s StyleFree EP both succeeds and fails with admirable intentions. It’s hard to deny that his words are anything but the truth. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the StyleFree EP is anything but pedestrian.