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E-40: At 43, The Rap Virtuoso Plays On

On his 13th and 14th albums, E-40 morphs words using levels of absurdity that would make Dr. Seuss proud.
Courtesy of the artist
On his 13th and 14th albums, E-40 morphs words using levels of absurdity that would make Dr. Seuss proud.

For more than two decades, hip-hop veteran E-40 has made his trade in reality raps and linguistic experiments. He's only proven stronger for the wear. The new third and fourth installments in his Revenue Retrievin' series of albums, called Overtime Shift and Graveyard Shift, follow last year's Day Shift and Night Shift; like their predecessors, both were released separately on the same day. It's an unorthodox approach, but E-40 has never been much for orthodoxy.

"Unique people love the way I speak," he boasts in "E Forty," from Graveyard Shift. E-40 raps fast in a cracking and permanently quizzical tone, often teetering on Porky Pig levels of exasperation. On his 13th and 14th albums, he bends rhythm to his will and strings run-on sentences into long conversations with himself. In a recent interview with Complex Magazine, Ice Cube compared E-40's style to "that graffiti that you can't read but you know it's dope." It's an acquired taste that alienates some East Coast rap purists, but it's also earned the California rapper a fair share of acolytes on his home turf and across smaller markets.

In terms of subject matter, E-40 rarely transcends the typical gangsta tropes: loyalty, betrayal, neighborhood pride, hustles both legal and illegal, substance-abuse capacity, sexual exploits. But he makes it his goal to stretch these topics well past their logical extremes through a sheer love for the elasticity of language. His catalog is built around sputtering, intertwined streams of obscure street slang and SAT words. While he's clearly a thesaurus fiend, E-40 hardly limits himself to existing words or the laws that bind them. Instead, he morphs them to levels of absurdity that would make Dr. Seuss proud.

Take his word "manish" [sic, and pronounced "mannish"], which, if context and are to be believed, describes "a young man who is acting like a grown man." It's been part of E-40's vocabulary for the better part of his career, but it's still evolving today. In "Concrete," from Graveyard Shift, he boasts, "At the beginning of my manishness I was the manishest," and audibly delights in the act. It's gibberish, but gibberish to a logical end. Such perversions are, after all, how language evolves. E-40 is partially responsible for popularizing once-regional, now-entrenched popular slang like "playa hater" and "fo sheezy," and his vocabulary evolves so quickly that he usually abandons these words by the time they hit critical mass.

The Revenue Retrievin' albums are also as utilitarian they are virtuosic, offering pure, unfitted subwoofer bait. Or, to let E-40 tell it in "My S--- Bang," from Graveyard Shift: "Pull up with the slump / Or should I say blap? / Trunk sound like I got an alligator in the back." His production team, which includes Bay Area veteran Rick Rock (who's produced for Jay-Z and Tupac) and his own 22-year-old son Droop-E, has spent much of the past decade perfecting and gradually modernizing the "slap" — that is, the trunk-rattling noise of a song. At this point, playing any of the Revenue Retreivin' albums anywhere other than the inside of a well-equipped automobile or some sort of super-futuristic sound system is to do these records an injustice. The beats occupy a shimmering low end and plodding highs, often sounding like the score from a hard-boiled crime film if it were loosely reinterpreted by an alien species, then slathered in aggressive drum-machine workouts.

E-40 and his team have been perfecting this formula over the course of several albums, winding it tighter over time — an evolution no doubt aided by his recent independence from the commercial expectations of the major-label system. With that approach comes a certain sameness, especially considering the sheer abundance of his recent output. Eighty songs in a little more than a year is a lot for any artist, especially one with such a singular vision. It'd be hard to recommend the entire series to anybody but E-40's most diehard followers, and even they are likely trimming the fat to craft their own personalized playlists. (Overtime Shift might be the most consistent of the series and the best place to start.) But that's the beauty of independence — an artist is free to release as much music as his whims ordain.

Therein lies the fascinating thing about E-40: Theoretically, he has no reason to remain so productive or ambitious, and yet he does. During the recording of this batch of Revenue Retreivin' songs, E-40 tweeted a photo of himself in his natural habitat: sprawled out on the studio floor, empty bottles of Carlo Rossi at his side, pen in hand, glasses at their trademark tilt as he peered over a stack of crumpled notepad pages. The 43-year-old seemed downright childlike in his glee. It's easy to imagine E-40 holding the same pose for the past 20 years, and hopefully many more to follow. He's an ageless and ever-unfolding attestation to the creativity of gangsta rap.

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Andrew Noz