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E-40 - The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1, 2 and 3

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Artist: E-40

Album: The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1, 2 and 3

Label: Heavy on the Grind Ent.

Review date: Apr. 25, 2012

When people talk about the Bay Area hyphy movement and its retreat from the national hip-hop consciousness, they tend bring up the wrong stuff. They talk about the death of Mac Dre, posit that everybody was doing too much ecstasy to keep going for very long, or blame the fickle, rotating regionalism that permeates the rap zeitgeist. Or maybe, they point to the fact that by signing to Lil Jon’s label, E-40 was indirectly hitching himself to Crunk, thereby becoming a corollary to something that was already itself a corollary of Southern Rap. All of this is only sort of true.

It’s not really helpful to compare the hyphy movement to any other American regional style, either. Its closest analog is Houston, with Bun B and the dearly missed Pimp C factoring as the E-40/Mac Dre rallying figures, lean (codeine cough syrup mixed with Sprite and gummy bears) standing in for ecstasy, and everything slowed to an ominous crawl instead of being really sped-up and frenetic. But that doesn’t explain the intricacies of the Bay Area scene, or the fact that nobody else really sounds like the guys who come out of there, or even why Houston is still considered vibrant on a national level (it’s Bun B who got the call to appear on Lil Wayne’s new album, not E-40). It helps a bit to look at the U.K. grime scene, with its ping-ponging bleeps for beats and personality-driven raps, for comparison. It also should be noted that hyphy got on the map merely for producing an extremely good hyphy song (the thundering anthem “Tell Me When to Go”), while any grime artist who found success did so by effectively abandoning his roots and banishing any personality that they might have had to the recesses of their consciousness (though it should be noted that plenty of great pop songs have come out of this — Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” is the type of jaw-dropping hip-house that Pitbull would offer to have his soul put down for). Ultimately, when people talk about the decline of Hyphy, they are really talking about economics.

I am going to get to The Block Brochure in a second, I promise. But in order for you to understand why E-40, born Earl Stevens, released three 80-minute CDs that all had the same title on the same exact day, we have to look at the distribution model that separates The Bay from anywhere else. In the latter-day hip-hop landscape, it’s fairly accepted that you have to put out mixtapes in order to maintain your popularity — gigantic national stars like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and T.I. still do it, because they know that if you offer someone something for free, they are vastly more likely to download and listen to it than if you ask them to give you $12 for it. However, Stevens and his Bay compatriots don’t really care about that stuff, because they’ve got a small army of local fans who are more than willing to spring for their albums. So, the cult makes rappers’ pockets fatter, at the expense of their national appeal. It’s a strategy some might argue with, but from a pragmatism standpoint, it’s undeniable — it’s hard to give a shit about racking up half a million downloads of your mixtape, when you could just sell 80,000 records and be able to feed your kids.

So, with that in mind, here’s the elevator pitch on Stevens if you’re not too familiar beyond “Tell Me When to Go,” his 2006 single that, to my teenage rap fan self, sounded like being abducted by a UFO and being force-fed a bunch of ecstasy. After his relationship with Lil Jon effectively ended, Stevens turned to the youth — his son, Droop-E (Earl Stevens, Jr.) specifically — to revive his sound. Stevens Jr. creates beats that played up the bizarro elements that had always characterized his father’s rapping, creating a new sound for the elder Stevens, drawing on hyphy’s traditional hard-hitting drums but unafraid to experiment, showing a strong debt to the “Purple Sound” of Bristol producers like Joker and Guido. That’s not to say he’s boxed in by any given style — he’s sampled Björk with fantastic results, and once made a mixtape in the style of Sade as something of a hyper-specific genre exercise. He’s one of the most gifted producers under the age of 25, and his fingerprints are all over The Block Brochure.

There is a conventional wisdom that states that once a rapper reaches a certain age, he falls off, losing relevancy and effectively running out of stuff to rap about. At 44, Stevens is older than just about anyone on the pop charts, and he shows no signs of running out of things to rap about — in fact, on The Block Brochure, it’s really a question of what he isn’t rapping about. Rap albums have an especially spotty history where cohesiveness is concerned, and the times that Stevens contradicts himself is remarkable — put the tracklist on a dartboard, and depending where you aim your shot you could hit the ladies’ man, devoted father and husband, stone-cold killer, motivational speaker or a shit-talker of the highest order. While this sounds like a detriment on paper, it’s really not that big of a deal, as Stevens wears each hat as deftly as the other, and at 54 songs it’s nearly impossible to parse The Block Brochure in one sitting.

Listening to Stevens rap is a singular experience. He’s an enunciator of the highest order, syllables tumbling out of his mouth, at times speeding up his words to squeeze them between the elephantine drum slaps, and at others stretching them out to emphasize certain phrasings. Though he often lithely skates over beats, Stevens can still be an abrasive vocal presence — he bellows, he guffaws gutterally, and tends to cap off verses he’s especially enamored with by tacking on a resounding, screeching, “BEEEITCH!” regardless of what the song is actually about.

There are plenty of guests on this album, and not all of them great — Stevens tends to farm out his choruses to R&B singers, with questionable efficacy. Stevens Jr., in particular, has to improve as a rapper before he’s at his father’s level; right now, he’s about as nimble as Karl Rove on the mic. Tech N9ne, another quick-tongued but ultimately underrated regional hero — the Midwest, specifically Kansas City, is his domain — shines on “Scorpio” (though with “I’m a Scorpio, man! Wikipedia!/I’m a Scorpio, man! Wikipedia!” Stevens still manages to have the couplet of the song), and the usually shy Kendrick Lamar gets out of his own head long enough to stretch himself and show some menace on “Catch a Fade.”

So, yes, The Block Brochure is overstuffed. And yes, it might be a bit much to ask someone to spend $40 on these three discs when rappers like Soulja Boy are releasing unique, weird hip-hop for free seemingly every time you refresh your Twitter timeline. But — and this is no slight to Soulja Boy, whose music I genuinely enjoy — many mixtapes are ephemeral, designed for single-serving consumption, a storm of muddled snares and aggression that passes quickly. The Block Brochure, ponderous though it may be, is curated carefully and put together in a way that will actually hold up over time. It’d be a wonder to see which tracks made the cutting room floor. Maybe Stevens is saving them for a mixtape.

By Drew Millard

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