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John Forté is a Grammy-nominated recording artist, activist, filmmaker, and writer. First known for his work with The Fugees, Forté wrote and produced songs for their 1996 multi-platinum album The Score.
John Forté’s new album Vessels, Angels & Ancestors, available 10/22 on Soul Land Records, is an artistic work that feels impossibly immediate even as it radiates a timeless aura. The rapper and producer’s fifth studio album is the culmination of his impressive multi-decade career while charting new sonic paths, as Forté surveys the world around us and offers a grounded perspective while engaging in the depths of self-exploration. With a blunt-force impact and endless miles of melody, Vessels, Angels & Ancestors is an aural road map for today’s times that reveals new intricacies with every successive listen.
The mere existence of Vessels, Angels & Ancestors comes as a surprise to Forté himself, who just released his excellent fourth full-length Riddem Drive last year—the latest missive in a career that’s included collaborations with artists like the Fugees, Herbie Hancock, and John Legend, as well as involvement towards advancing essential causes like prison reform and eradicating drug laws.
“I didn’t anticipate releasing another album so quickly,” he explains while discussing how Vessels, Angels & Ancestors came together over the last year. “But the world was still happening, and through the trauma we saw the state violence of what we were witnessing on body cams—the theft of bodies before our eyes, which led young people to take to the streets and demand for more.”
Inspiration for the album’s genesis came from the mass uprising that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin—an event that galvanized the world and forced even the most ignorant of society’s participants to recognize the long-term effects of state-sanctioned violence and the racism that powers it. “As a husband, a father, and a creative being, I was wholly inspired, and I followed that energy,” Forté recalls, and the impassioned “Shame, Shame” came pouring forth as a result.
“At the time, I thought that this was just an isolated event of inspiration, but I realized pretty quickly thereafter that I was on a larger journey,” he explains, and as Vessels, Angels & Ancestors came together, so did its myriad collaborators as they shaped the record’s sound and style in real time—from underground rap scion billy woods and singer-songwriter Ben Taylor to production wizard Fielded and vocal group Rising Appalachia.
“Unbeknownst to most of these collaborators, they were working on a much larger quilt that possessed an arc,” Forté explains, which you can more than hear on the jam-packed “Ready on the One”—a low-slung and bell-dotted anthem featuring Spills, Five, and Miss Brittany Reese. “It sets us up for the narrative that takes place throughout the album,” Forté explains—specifically, the journey of “Shorty,” a character that represents a younger version of the artist as well as “Any younger person who has everything in front of them.”
The earthy, laid-back “Gas” features rap veteran Everlast lacing the cut with his own distinctive vocals, representing a moment to breathe amidst Vessels, Angels & Ancestors’ planet-sized soul-searching. “Somewhere in the midst of all the madness is an opportunity to grieve and celebrate,” Forté explains while discussing the song. “This song feels like a reprieve to me—a sliver of dawn that allows us to relax a little bit and, quite frankly, get high.”
Elsewhere, the spare, enticing electronic squiggles of “Zugzwang” reflections on the album’s overarching themes while drawing from the chess term that it takes its name from: “Any move that you make beyond the square that you’re currently on is going to put you at a disadvantage,” Forté offers. “The best move is to do what you can to stay on that square for as long as you can, because as soon as you jump off, life’s gonna be a lot harder.”
“The role of the artist is to translate the important stuff for the masses, and to be able to document these times,” he continues while elaborating on how Vessels, Angels & Ancestors represents a turning point in his own career as well. “This record feels like the moment that I’ve arrived. I’ve had so much self-doubt in my career, but this album didn’t have that. Making this album validated my lived experience, which allowed me to get out of my own way. It’s significant for me.” Indeed, Vessels, Angels & Ancestors feels like a new step forward from an always-fascinating artist—food for the mind and spirit, with plenty to keep your body moving as well.
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