“…The trouble / Is I tell you, how can I / Sound just like and only my self / And then could you dig it if I could?”
—Carolyn M. Rodgers, “The Breakthrough”
Straight out of California’s Bay Area, E-40 has been with us for quite some time now. Back in the day, 40 operated a successful indie record label, Sick Wid It, before he inked an ambitious deal with Jive Records. With Jive, he proceeded to release a string of albums.
Of course, the word on E-40 is that he’s the master of lingo. Personally, I think he’s the e.e. cummings of rap. In fact, he’s scheduled to release a full book of slanguage, fittingly titled E-40’s Dictionary Book of Slang, perhaps to assist us uninitiated listeners as we wade through his hip-hop jabberwocky. Then again, perhaps the rapper concurrently known as 40 Water has a different agenda. Maybe he wants to set some things straight and let the world know he was the guy who coined phrases like “Fa shizzle” before Snoop Dee-oh-double-gizzle ever made it out of the pound. So you can blame E-40 for Snoop’s insistence on speaking that strange Pig Latin. On the other hand, it would say a lot about E-40’s ability to create a niche for himself if he feels his vernacular is so obscure that he should publish an English-to-E-40 dictionary.
While 40’s diction and delivery are unique, don’t get confused and think the songs themselves will break new ground. They won’t. Truthfully, I doubt they were intended to. E-40 likes to stay in his comfort zone. He’s a self-proclaimed hustler, party man, prankster, and lover of ladies, so if you’re looking for anything else, you’re listening to the wrong guy. E-40 don’t play dat. In Gladiator, when Maximus was told to “win the crowd”, E-40 was probably in the movie theatre nodding his head in agreement, thinking about his own strategy for capturing the hearts of music aficionados.
His latest release, My Ghetto Report Card, is the perfect example of how an artist can deliver exactly what his fans have come to expect. As if to highlight his high approval ratings, the inside of the CD cover shows a “report card” that looks like it was written in blackboard chalk! According to the report card, 40 took Hustlin’, Tycoonin’, Hoodshop, Music, and PE (Paraphernalia Education) and got A’s in each class for each of the four grading quarters listed.
As you might imagine, the obvious response to seeing the report card is, “Geez, how corny.” But on second thought, the name of the album, after all, is My Ghetto Report Card. Since none of the songs make reference to school or street education (I was kind of hoping for a song called “School of Hard Knocks”), it makes sense to address the album title somewhere on or within the cover. No doubt the title will raise questions along with a few eyebrows. Questions such as: “If this a ghetto report card, what grade is E-40 in?”; “Do you ever graduate from the ghetto?”; “If the answer to the last question is ‘yes’, does graduation reduce your street credibility?”; “Can you make the honor roll?”; and “Could JJ Evans from the Good Times sitcom teach Art Appreciation?”. Considering E-40’s high marks, perhaps “Valedictorian” would have been a more appropriate album title.
Finally, it’s easy to look at all the A-plusses on his report card and think, “Dag, what a nerd!”
Slowly, though, I realized I was over-thinking it. E-40’s not trying to pen a philosophical treatise; he’s only trying to have some fun. From that angle, the album works better, as did the motivation behind his upcoming dictionary. Although production duties were divvied up between Lil Jon, Rick Rock, Studio ToN, Droop-E, and Bosko Kante, My Ghetto Report Card excels at blending ear-friendly beats with E-40’s unique lyricism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the crew spent many a frustrated night in the studio trying to fashion the right sound. Not only that, but the producers managed to wed the crunk of the Dirty South with the bounce of the West Coast. That’s not an easy task. The result is an eclectic mix. It’s not all gouda (to borrow E-40’s word for money), but the album contains more diamond cuts than lumps of coal.
The album opens with “Yay Area”, a spare workout of percussion and keys, constructed around a loop sampled from the Digable Planets’ hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)”. And yes, that title really is “Yay Area” instead of “Bay Area”. The song announces 40’s “second wind”, an invitation of sorts for everyone to witness his return and, oh yeah, you should know he’s got “more paper than a paper shredder”. Speaking of the clubs, “Tell Me When to Go”, the album’s lead single, continues the drum-and-bass party with a cleverly placed sample of Run DMC’s “Dumb Girl”. Despite 40’s insistence that he’s not interested in the mainstream, “Tell Me When to Go” is destined to be a club favorite.
The report card really gets interesting at track four, “Go Hard or Go Home”, and track five, “Gouda”. Both songs feature Bay Area group the Federation, and, in my opinion, provide strong examples of 40 working his flow in conjunction with, rather than in spite of, his sonic landscape. Because E-40 sometimes raps without any regard for the beat—like a kid who refuses to color inside the lines—he has to make sure his delivery doesn’t disrupt the song’s momentum. When he follows through, we’re treated to hilarious and wildly eccentric tracks like “They Might Be Taping” and “Do Ya Head Like This”. He even gives us some hardcore tracks, like “Yee” (featuring Too $hort and Budda) and “Block Boi”. When things get off track, the result is “Sick Wid It II”.
E-40’s kryptonite is being subtle, a surprising revelation, given his creativity as a wordsmith. He’s a sucker for bluntness, particularly when it comes to relations with the ladies, and it almost ruins the album. Some songs could have been left on the cutting room floor, songs like “U and Dat” (where the word following “Dat” isn’t one I want to repeat in print, and typically precedes “cat”) and “Gimme H***” (the second word in the title is usually attached to a neck). The sexuality in the songs isn’t the problem; I actually dig that about them. It’s the fact that they don’t try anything new musically or lyrically. Compare those tunes with the Dr. Dre-styled “Just F***in”, in which 40 explores the psychology of a loveless relationship, and the difference should be clear. Then compare all of the above with the last song, “Happy to Be Here”, a definite attempt at positive thinking, but still an example of being too blunt, this time in the opposite direction. It’s one of those let’s-hold-hands-and-skip-through-the-‘hood joints that rappers love to throw at the end of an album. Don’t get me wrong. The beat is funky, even if it is a bit Kanye West-y. The delivery is nice too. It’s the concept that could use some tweaking.
But then there’s “White Gurl”, quite possibly the most memorable song in the set. “White Gurl” hijacks the old school joint “Fly Girl” and flips the script. And get this. Instead of rapping about an actual white girl, Mr. 40 and his crew create a metaphor for powdered contraband. True, it’s not the most wholesome message and, sure, the theft of “Fly Girl” isn’t the most original move musically but, lyrically speaking, the song’s got plenty of imagination in its use of double meanings (“Mama can’t stand her, tellin’ me to switch / Sayin’ I’ma go to jail f***kin’ wit’ that white b****”).
Honestly, in spite of critics like me who think My Ghetto Report Card is E-40’s chance for mainstream success, I don’t get the impression he’s too worried about superstardom. The Ambassador of the Bay’s been in the game long enough to know what his audience wants, and he delivers it like a mailman. With that type of longevity should also come the realization that you don’t need a report card or a grade to validate your work. E-40’s spent over ten years paying his dues. Everything now should count as extra credit.