My Ghetto Report Card
hris Rock said that every rapper knows that Scarface should never fall below number four on any artist’s top five list. He’s right, and maybe, just maybe, someone (not me?) can make a case for E-40 in the top seven.
With a voice that’s more lush and dexterous than half an orchestra or a three-month Timbaland lab quest, E-40, E Fizzle, Charlie Hustle, what have you, has been the nuclear reaction of fission and fusion in rap slang and language for over a decade.
Being introduced to E-40 is a challenge in and of itself. Never a radio presence (the closest he got was 2000’s unfairly overlooked “Nah Nah” a spiffy, unproblematic Battle Cat summer breeze co-helmed by Nate Dogg), 40 makes it to virgin ears through weird friends who only listen to NorCal rap and acid jazz, archaic college radio DJ’s, and random moments of gossip epiphanies: “Hey, did you know that Snoop actually jacked all that -izzle stuff from some rapper from San Francisco?” Finding him is half the fun. And no one usually starts with an album.
When you get to 40, you’re usually aurally dexterous enough to pick out not just the slang but the damp, gummy hold E-40 has on his words, stretching out phrases and a simply rounded “Ooooh” over two or three should-be-there breaks in syntax. It sounds better than that—drippy, anxious, playful, and menacing all at the same time. In fact, it may even be too concentrated a voice to absorb and decipher over the course of an album. That’s an argument that has been made, successfully, not necessarily “against” his previous albums. He’s a lyric voice, not a narrative one, and by aesthetics alone, that makes albums a trickier affair.
On album opener, “Yay Area,” Lil’ Jon puts some silk and crunk around cantankerous, clapping, West Coast drums and strings and pianos. E-40 emerges: “I got my second wind!” Then the man who calls cash “broccoli” and once rapped about Kenneth Cole’s stays true to form, opening “Tell Me When To Go,” the suddenly boutique single, with: “Ooh; Jesus Christ had dreads, so shake 'em / I ain't got none, but I'm planning on growing some / Imagine all the Hebrews going dumb / Dancing on top of chariots and turning tight ones.” E-40 can toss out spinning slang twists right behind leering threats but sent with enough vocal backspin—phraseology that takes a second to digest, lateral mastication and syllabic halts—to make a line echo for days. Clearly, this is not the delivery we associate with name checking the Levant.
Almost as a response to the grandeur of the first few tracks (an enviable stretch of siren collisions and being “a couple tacos short of a combination”), the scope gets smaller on Report Card about a third of the way in. The hyphy shout-outs fall away (this record, with its subterranean drums and only occasional Bay Area-spastic chimes, is way more ATL than OAK), and E-40 starts honing in on his usual touchstones: cars, crime, and wordplay.
The music strips down as well: many a song seems made with just soft industrial whirrs, a hi-hat, and an obese kick drum. That’s fine, but problematic guests begin to take hold of the disc too. Besides Keak Da Sneak, whose post-Jadakiss gravel throat easily captivates with its uncompromising bleakness, there’s the random assortment of Mike Jones, Al Kapone, UGK (end the guest verses, drop the album now), Too $hort, and long time 40 associate B-Legit. As fine as these artists can be, the album is the strongest when E-40 gets more than one verse a song. Repeat: an E-40 album should have E-40’s voice around for more than half the time.
He alone was born for the drums-whistle-and-xenophobia of “Yee” just so he can say: “we should talk a bath in tomato juice / ‘cause we always smell like skunk.” We don’t need him splitting a shift with Juelz Santana on “White Gurl.” The scope got smaller, then the beats, then the effort, then the pleasure. Now we want narrative because everything else is corroding and 40 can’t give it to us. He’s been pulled out of his habitat.
We also don’t need this album to have the identical flaws as albums produced by artists with half the flair and relevance of 40’s. The skits on Report Card are trite, the second half collapses out of dilapidation, and the first five songs (all small, weird gems) get further and further on the horizon. If it seems like the enthusiasm is leaving this page right now, that’s cause the six-minute “Gimme Head” came on again. Now it’s not clear who to make a case for.