How E-40 Became the Netflix of Hip-Hop

Hua Hsu

By Hua Hsu

on 01.03.14 in Spotlights

The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil 1


E-40 has been recording and releasing rap music for 23 years — a very long time to stay in any line of work, and an astonishing feat in the world of hip-hop. He’s been around so long that even his son, producer and rapper Droop-E, seems like he’s been around a long time. To put it in context: When E-40 released his first cassette in 1990, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were both famous, and you could still have a legitimate debate about whether hip-hop would ever be embraced by the mainstream. Not that E-40 was ever bothered by such centrist concerns. He mythologized local landmarks, detailed turf politics and bullshit in a tirelessly flamboyant, hyper-stylized way and even during his occasional traipses chartward, he invaded the space with his characteristically prissy, cacophonous approach. He wandered off into a different orbit, untroubled by the fashions and lexical small-mindedness of the rest of rap. Or, as he puts it on “A Breath of Fresh Air,” one of 45 new songs he released on the same day in December: “Everybody else sound like everybody else.”

When it comes to E-40, reports of the music industry’s collapse have been premature: This is the fourth year in a row that the “Vallejo, Cali-harm-ya” rapper has released multiple albums on the same day. Four volumes of his Revenue Retrievin’ series were spread out over 2010 and 2011. Last year, he released two album-length collaborations with Too $hort and the first three installments of The Block Brochure. In mid-December, he released the next three installments, three hours of oddball mob music featuring a colorful supporting cast of Bay Area stalwarts (B-Legit, San Quinn, Mac Mall), boldface hit-men (Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Chris Brown) and lively youngsters (Schoolboy Q, Iamsu!, NHT Boyz). In an age when artists and labels will try anything to engineer pre-release excitement, there’s something slightly loony about 40′s upstream swim, this avant-Netflix, all-at-once dump of hours upon hours of new material.

Three hours of anyone’s catalog is intimidating, and 40′s most recent chapters of The Block Brochure aren’t meant for binging. Most of it retraces the same territories — hyperactive Bay Area “function music,” throwback 808 coke raps, #otm Maybach synths — but it never feels repetitive. The basics of 40′s style are so enthralling and strange, and nearly every track boasts some audaciously bent vocab, some word or phrase you’ve never heard used quite that way. On “Bendin’ Corners,” he ridicules your unimaginative metaphors: “I don’t make it rain, I’m not a cloud.” You can’t argue with his bona fides. “In the streets like an oil stain,” he brags on “Yellow Gold” while the gold-digging “Mister T” casts him “crispy like Panko.” There’s a delight in just hearing 40 lean into his syllables, the gleeful sonics when he over-enunciates words that don’t rhyme. On the excellent “Mob Shit” — featuring cousin B-Legit — he distinguishes you from him: “You was born with a silver spoon in your mouth/ (What kind you had?) I was born with a rusty one.”

The chasm between 40 and the rest of rap is further illustrated on “Champagne. Guests Rick Ross and French Montana bring their neon universalism while the cartoon-amped 40 promises to shutter your doors like Mervyns, a onetime Bay Area retailer. On “Episode,” Chris Brown does his arctic serenade thing and T.I. stays in the pocket as 40 big-ups his own line of wines — the perfect prelude to a night of old fashioned “thrashin’.” Occasionally, his guests rise to his challenge: On “Countdown,” a festive 2 Chainz — the kind of guy who makes his living mainlining 40-type absurdism — goes as dumb as he can, fussing over your girl’s hair and counting the commas on his royalty check. If he hadn’t been an only child, he observes, “my parents woulda had a extra G.” The host’s sass is matched on the menacingly great “All My Ni**az,” where 40 stan Danny Brown manages to sound like the most exasperated rapper alive.

All the brazen quirk makes 40′s plainer observations stand out all that much more. He remarks that he’s “got more homies in prison than I got in college” during “Money on My Mind,” and the natural italics of his voice remind you of his old school convictions. E-40 takes pride in referring to himself as one of the last real ones, and releasing three albums on the same day certainly won’t disturb that rep. There’s something inspiring about his consistency, the idea of the middle-aged 40 clocking in and not clocking out until he’s finished his annual goal of a hundred or so new songs. The most remarkable aspect of E-40′s career isn’t that he never sounds like anybody else; it’s that the 46-year-old rapper never sounds old.

Meanwhile, in an adjacent wing of the mansion, his sons tinker away. The supremely low-key, bashfully weird teenager Issue dropped a couple mixtapes in 2012; The Best of Issue is available here. And ever since emerging in the mid 2000s as a twisted funk prodigy, older brother Droop-E has been crafting a breezier, more laid-back style. This past summer, he finally released his fantastic debut EP, Hungry and Humble. Nite Jewel and J. Stalin tag along on the lush “N the Traffic,” while on the spacedusted G-funk of “Ridin’ Solo,” the young heir boasts of “leaving money for my grandchildren’s children.” It’s his birthright, this quiet, faithful corner of the world. On “Rossi Wine,” Kendrick Lamar — who gave love to E-40 on “Money Trees” — links up with Droop-E at a barbecue in the clouds, jugs of his father’s favorite budget wine for everyone.