Legendary Bay Area rapper's eleventh album is 50% great and 50% an ill-fated attempt at pop. Sigh.
Long before we had Lil Wayne, rap’s self-championed king of all things Martian, we had E-40, the decade-plus-long figurehead of Oakland’s hyphy scene.
Where Wayne has decided to weird out rap by tattering his voice into a gravelly, creepy rasp and then nearly constantly filtering it through the robot-friendly Auto-Tune software, E-40 and his brethren have been weirding out hyphy’s cult following with sounds and verbiage that are forward-thinking and unmistakable: beats made up of synths that sound like alien burps; cadences and flows that are schizophrenic, impenetrable, and alluring; buzzwords that are foreign to us but ways of life to them.
To hyphy fiends, E-40 is what Tupac or Jay-Z or, moving forward, Wayne is to the rest of the word. He’s a star, an icon, and one of rap’s singular forces -- regardless of whether rap purists recognize it or not.
The Ball Street Journal is E-40’s first album after his 2006 hit “Tell Me When to Go”, a song that briefly revitalized his career when hyphy became an MTV fad. The album finds him stretching for a pop hit of that stature, but it’s an itch that he’s ultimately unable to scratch. Pop-grabs with Akon and T-Pain and the Game are emblems of The Ball Street Journal’s unevenness, wherein 40 nestles classic hyphy bangers in between songs that are conceptually inferior.
On the good side are tracks like “40 Water”, “Got Rich Twice”, and “Alcoholism”, songs that prove that no one does it quite like 40 when he’s really on. Classic hyphy tracks, they provide ample canvass for E-40’s Pollack-ian vocal brush strokes: skull-splitting bass stabs; synths that splinter, blurt, and pop; literal bells and whistles; and, most importantly, plenty of empty spaces.
With these clattering, skeletal, and, yes, truly weird beats, E-40 is able to dazzle with his unmistakable voice, the voice that has cemented him as one of the most singular and bizarre rappers in history. Much like Twista -- an odd predecessor of 40’s vocal tricks -- E-40 raps in a flash-quick cadence, yet he emphasizes words and phrases by drawing out sounds like he’s pulling gum from his mouth and by dropping his voice to a deep diaphragm boom at seemingly random times. The effect is predictably captivating.
So when E-40 sands his edges down into an attempt to get radio play in between “Love Lockdown” and “Pop Champagne”, the album sags terribly. Unfortunately, these songs -- collabs with producers like J.R. Rotem and Lil Jon -- make up almost half of The Ball Street Journal. So instead of this release being a solid addition to E-40’s classic catalog, it's instead just exactly what it is: a rapper’s eleventh album.