The Year. 2. If it wasn’t for the water, the rap game would be dry.

2. E-40 – Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift/Revenue Retrievin’: Overtime Shift [US]


The level of lateness we’re working at here means that I’ve had about five months of worrying about how to write about these records. But I can’t really avoid it any longer, so here it is. 2500 words about a dude who’s in his twenty-third year of releasing rap music. He’s worked with both 2Pac and Drake, which says something about how long his name has carried weight. And I just discovered he existed in 2011. It’s possible that I should have started with earlier records, like In A Major Way (1995) which is one of the best rap records of all time, or even My Ghetto Report Card (2006) with all its hyphy era classics. But I didn’t. I started with Revenue Retrievin’: Overtime Shift and Revenue Retrievin’: Graveyard Shift and I spent pretty much the whole year with both on my little 2GB mp3 player because I kept getting mad that I couldn’t listen to them every time I tried dumping them off to make space for Fucked Up or Keak Da Sneak or something.

It might be interesting that I came to E-40 with his most recent records because I literally had no context. I’d probably heard Tell Me When To Go once or twice incidentally, but I had no real idea who E-40 was. You know this already, I presume. I was that kid with the big and expanding collection of indie rock and pre-indie rock canon stuff, with five jazz, afrobeat, techno, funk, blues and hip hop albums just to make sure I was keeping my education broad. I was seriously into hip hop for a little while before I actually got around to E-40, but I guess I have two points here. Firstly, he’s the fucking dude and a huge part of my process of learning to listen to rap music. That sounds academic or something but it’s not. It didn’t happen with premeditation, he just kept saying cool shit and I kept listening. Secondly, I approached these albums without any idea of what E-40 had done before or what he was supposed to sound like. I didn’t become a Revenue Retrievin’ fan because I was an E-40 fan. I became an E-40 fan because I was a Revenue Retrievin’ fan. Which might be rare, I dunno. Anyway, let’s jump in.

On the David Drake episode of the Champale podcast, they talked about how hard it was to explain in writing why certain rappers or rap songs are so good. A lot of why Biggie is the best is because he sounds “fat and pissed off” regardless of what he’s actually rapping about. And sometimes a song is fire just because it’s fire. That sort of thinking is basically the only way to deal with E-40 when he’s fully on. On Serious, featuring an unexpectedly brilliant T-Pain soul hook, he drops three verses, each self-contained, like a three-act play, that manage to tell a real and affecting struggle story without ever seeming like ‘conscious rap’. But to talk about it like that doesn’t do full justice to the song. It might be the highlight of Graveyard Shift and that’s not just because it’s a perfect, watertight rap with a narrative. It’s because of the delivery. Biggie sounds fat and pissed off, certainly, but he also sounds like Biggie, in a way you can’t really word. So does E-40. I’m gonna transcribe my favourite part here, but realistically you’re just going to have to listen to it.

They found weed in my system, I told my girl I was quitting
They sent me back to San Quentin for ninety days, did my time and got out
Now I’m the unemployment line tryna figure shit out
But the penal system got me by the neck, sahab
With my trouble passed, I can’t even get me a job
My partner rap, he got his own record label, they doin’ they thang
If I holla at him, maybe he can shoot me some change

It’s such a vivid picture. Can’t help but think of young Kanye in Fade To Black saying “instead of the Black Album, it’s like the Black Movie n shit.” In the third verse he tells a weird an unexpected story about using his money to book old school r’n’b and soul groups instead of rappers for concerts because of venue insurance, and then explains that he doesn’t want to accept a job at a toll booth because he doesn’t want to work for a white man. Some rappers have an issue with bad exposition when they try to do this sort of thing and just compensate with bare energy, but Serious is a fucking novel, and a good one, and it’s only three and a half minutes long.

My Lil Grimey N-, two tracks later on Graveyard Shift, is the same sort of thing except over a genuinely unsettling beat, except it’s a third-person character sketch sort of thing about a dead-eyed young man “lurking and prowling” and shooting people without any sort of humanity. As I often do, I sent it to my test subject Mos Def fan friend who said it was “too scary for me” which, without being a rap song with gun sounds and a chap shouting about fucking you up, is probably a pretty good endorsement of how good it is.

Concentrating too much on how artful a storyteller E-40 is sells short his ability to just talk shite over an empty beat though. His shit bang. Again, there is no real way to talk about this effectively without just sending you to listen, but I’ll transcribe a bit more. On the topic of a Puerto Rican woman’s ass, from Bad Bitch (on which Stressmatic also delivers the laziest verse in his long history of lazy verses, many of which are dealt with on various episodes of the podcast):

I met this Afro-American mixed with Spanish ho
Puerto Rican chick, love to cook mofungo
Donk so big you could play the bongos
Got a drum-roll booty, thick, juicy and jumbled.

More on the subject of racial preference, from Yankin’:

I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water nowadays, but white girls got big booties
Ain’t no colour line, I’m colourblind – let me stop lying, mister
We all created equal, but I prefer a sister.
Like little girl right there, she got a big kadonkydonk
She probably work out three times a week and eat what the fuck she want.

As Them’s The Vagaries rapper-slash-exec Seán once pointed out, that is kind of a ridiculous presumption to make about a girl who he is ostensibly just noticing in a club for the first time, who only appears for appears in the song for two lines anyway. Given that E-40 put out two albums in 2010 and then these two in 2011, there are obviously some songs that aren’t on quite the peak level, but there’s always some kind of nugget like that, a weird phrase or just a weird phrasing that takes you out of the song for a moment and makes you think, “what?” Which is in common with a few of the other rappers I’ve come to think of as favourites, like Gucci or Danny Brown or Husalah.

Wait, yeah, E-40 put out two albums in 2011 and we haven’t even got to Overtime Shift yet. I’ll try to keep it relatively brief. It opens with an a capella soul verse sort of thing that then drops into a reimagining of the beat from his 1991 track Mr. Flamboyant, which E-40 explains is “one of them throwback, mobbed out, yola coppin’, truck robbin’, spark some kush, crack a bottle and sip some ‘yac beats, motherfucker”. As if that was an actual type of beat. This is what I mean about the moments that take you out of the song. You could not doze to this if you tried.

I actually started getting into E-40 at all with Overtime Shift, even though it later became clear that it was slightly worse than its more sinister sister, which means that I started with Mr. Flamboyant 2k11, and I still think the way he interacts with the beat is pretty remarkable, the way he twists words around it and shifts intensity (and syllable-per-second count) according to where he is. It’s dynamic as fuck. And when it finishes, the beat to Drugs drops, which opens with the following unassailably excellent bars:

This thing all the way mobbed out
This thing beating the truck loose
I’m on a big ass bottle of Goose and some Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice
And I strongly suggest that you don’t sit on my transportation
Cos the slock is so severe, and the beat’s excruciating
Mayhaps might pop your ear or possibly collapse your lung
(What colour is your exterior?)
The same as Grey Pupon
(What is you a baller?)
Yeah but not LeBron
(What kind of baller are you?)
The kind that sell heroin

Drugs also marks the first appearance of B-Legit, who is both family-orientated and game-related by being E-40’s cousin and shares his age and attendant lack of self-consciousness. He leans into the beat with the same flow for whole verse, but he’s got fat-man-from-Vallejo charisma, and “block move like James Wade and Chris Bosh” is pretty clever. The other B-Legit feature is probably the highlight of the whole two album set, Rear View Mirror. Let me set the scene here.

There is a big synth bassline that mayhaps might pop your ear or possibly collapse your lung, with that 808 cowbell reminding you sonically of what region and vintage of rapper you are about to be dealing with. You snap your neck. Then, in the least explicable move in forty-something Bay Area rap music up until Too $hort made a bizarre video of himself as a mime, Stressmatic appears to provide the hook, in character as Slick Rick. He says the words “my rear view mirror is vibrating” in a cod-English accent. This is all he does on the song. In the video, he actually plays E-40 and B-Legit’s uniformed chauffeur which is a weird power dynamic for Stressmatic to have agreed to, but that’s the video, which is neither here nor there. Still, it’s hard not to on some level imagine the day at the studio when Droop-E played the beat for his father and his first cousin once removed and someone said, “hey, do you know what would be perfect on this? TJ from the Federation doing an impression of Slick Rick.”

After spending what seems like forever in the insoluble labyrinth of the song’s opening segment, E-40 starts. He is incapable of driving effectively because Droop-E’s bassline keeps knocking down his rear view mirror. He then engages in some more absurd statements about a woman. I know I’ve been leaning hard on these throughout the post, but it’s unfathomably great stuff.

See that chick right there? She a little old slut.
She said “E-40’s a FILF – father I’d like to fuck”
Little girl, you way too young for me
What you need to do is go and get your mommy
I heard she got some vicious dome action, gobble game is fire
Suction cup lips, suck the air out of tyres
Hips, butt, tits, bitch, call me sire
And I won’t stop macking till I retire.

This is perhaps the 2011 Revenue Retrievin set’s greatest “wait, what?” moment. Still reeling from Stressmatic’s Slick Rick, E-40 dismisses a young woman who finds him attractive and explains to her exactly why her mother would be a better match for him due to her legendary ability to give head. If you can’t respect that, your whole perspective is wack. B-Legit arrives with a slightly less unusual approach to bragging about fucking women before confusingly instructing us to “honour thy mother, but fuck these bitches.” Is he still talking to the girl who hit on E-40? That would be cockblocking. Presumably he’s talking to men in general. Either way.

Overtime Shift has some other high points as well. Beastin is a sort of hyphy Chad Hugo (Neptunes) beat that works as a great throwaway up-tempo track about partying. Guns is a song about guns with a hook that just consists of the word “guns” eight times and has a second verse that is mostly a list of types of guns. Punkin ‘Em Out involves E-40 explaining the definition of the word “domitore” to someone over the intro (it means helmet) before sounding threatening over a mid-tempo snap.

The track that follows Punkin ‘Em Out is pretty remarkable though. It’s called Born In The Struggle and opens with a Cornel West quote – it’s ‘conscious rap’ in a way that doesn’t make you forget it’s conscious ‘rap’ like Serious manages to. But that’s a good thing; Born In The Struggle is a different beast to Serious. It’s a pretty powerful explication of race relations in America, based on personal experiences, with all the shame and anger that comes with that territory.

I had to handwash my clothes. Didn’t have a washing machine or a dryer.
Momma used to have to hang her period panties out on a clothesline wire.

If that doesn’t hit you in the gut off the bat, there’s something wrong with your empathy function. He talks about “pissy sidewalks, human shit on the ground”, and a general sense of powerlessness in the face of history, flipping between childhood recollection and broader things like slave-trading. It’s kind of remarkable that he can do something like this and bring it off as well as he does on the same record as all the other stuff, but he’s not a normal rapper. He’s not likely to get significantly bigger at this point, obviously, but as he says, “I’m not rapping too fast, you’re listening too slow”. He’s putting out copious amounts of actual, barcoded music. He’s doing it at a point in his career where he (presumably) doesn’t actually have to, which means that he can be confident, say what he wants and work with who he wants, whether that means his son and cousin or Bun B and Devin The Dude or Cousin Fik, Beeda Weeda and J. Stalin.

Rappers at this age are a relatively new phenomenon. There isn’t much of a prototype for the greybeard rapper the way there is for the older rock star. E-40’s not likely to become Rev. Run, even if he’s good at giving excellent advice to young men who keep thinking with their peter. He’s not likely to become Snoop Dogg because he’s not famous enough nationwide/worldwide. He’s not likely to become Ice T, unless they come up with a serial drama where a large black man who mean mugs by default and speaks almost exclusively Bay slang can play a prominent role. He might end up like Heavy D if he doesn’t drop a few pounds but barring that, he’s not likely to disappear either. So he’s got to feel it out as he goes, and he’s doing that by putting out more music than ever. This is, by my count, his third musical peak and, at 43 when he made these two records, he’s still good enough to maintain the title of best rapper alive in my estimation, even if that’s meaningless. Because he sounds fat and pissed off, and his raps are fire.

E-40 feat. T-Pain – Serious (Graveyard Shift)
E-40 – My Lil Grimey Nigga (Graveyard Shift)
E-40 – Mr. Flamboyant 2K11 (Overtime Shift)
E-40 feat. B-Legit and Stressmatic (Overtime Shift)

Notes: Joking about rappers being family-orientated and/or game-related was invented or at least brought to my attention by done, who made the joke, a Sprinkle Me reference, about Cousin Fik. This correction was made out of the goodness of my heart even though he never did his guest post.

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8 responses to “The Year. 2. If it wasn’t for the water, the rap game would be dry.

  1. Maybe I should start reading broadsheet reviews again and its just a generational thing or it actually is 40’s good influence but being able to write that well about rap without leaning on handy canon guidelines considering how new to it you are is impressive. I told someone who was going on about Cadence Weapon the other day that he used to be a Pitchfork writer and he didn’t even have the decency to call bullshit/be embarrassed.

    Not trying to be condescending or give a backhanded compliment cos this’d be great even if I was unaware of your predilection for lonely teen types in his livejournal in the epilogue for turn of century coming of age dramedy soundtrack with string arrangements/teh stolen blk ppl riffs.

    Great work, is what Im saying.

  2. Hauld on actually I do have a complaint and its game-related.

  3. LOve me some 40 water…great review

  4. Cheers da.

    What’s the complaint doney?

  5. You totally ganked my Stevens family joke thing.

    Leave it in though, this whole post falls apart without my Stevens family joke thing.

  6. really donal from dundalk or drogheda who is doing a music course you really are a dickhead

  7. Darragh and Ciarán now listening to E 40, just so ya know. This is outstanding writing btw Karl.

  8. Why the ill will ted?

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