So far this publication has dutifully covered recent E-40 releases one by one, including different volumes of larger series, some of which were unleashed on the same day, like the first three tomes of “The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil.” We can keep it more brief this time. 4-5-6 may be a winning combination in cee-lo and E-40 may have long played his way into “Tha Hall of Game,” but in this case the numbers simply mean that we’re dealing with another round of E-40 albums that aren’t even differentiated by subtitles anymore.
While someone like Snoop is at a point where he’s open to experiment with his persona, Earl Stevens has, if anything, and despite the increased output, narrowed his artistic scope. The E-40 throwback tracks recorded since 2010 by far outnumber his original early ’90s songs who served as models. Once again he employs a number of relative newcomers and nobodies behind the boards, but they virtually are all instructed to come up with some variation of the kind of murky, menacingly prowling basslines that make up the bulk of almost any beat. Exceptions seem to be made for his son Droop-E and trusted beatsmiths like Rick Rock, Sam Bostic, Bosko, Scorp Dezel and DecadeZ.
Those strict musical guidelines don’t help broaden the scope of the second half of “The Block Brochure.” The three albums feature exactly three categories of song material. In order of frequency: the dark cautionary street tales, the dimly lit mid-tempo to slow-mo club tunes and the wistful and soulful visions of better times. The guests might steer songs in a certain direction, but the regimen makes sure they are always trademarked E-40. You wouldn’t expect anything else from such an attentive host who is able to hold a meaningful conversation with just about any guest. And you can’t really fault him for displaying more expertise than them, whether he’s jumping up and down at a frat party with the local NhT Boyz (“Ball Out”), or sitting in the VIP section with super stars Chris Brown and T.I. (“Episode”). Danny Brown and Rick Ross both (seperately) honoring their host by acknowledging his influence is certainly a compliment, but it’s also a sign of how all elements are drawn to the magnetic E-40 personality.
Thankfully that personality is as entertaining as ever. He’s still one of the most unique vocalists and lyricists in rap music, not so much a ‘rapper’ or ‘MC’ by traditional definitions but a storyteller, a vocal actor, a mentor and a jester, the cool, successful uncle with the interesting stories that you’d much rather listen to than your lame parents. E has really only now reached the stage of life at which you’d deem him capable to fulfill that role, but fact is that he’s been like that throughout his entire career. Which is part of the problem. Regular customers have heard these songs before, but also first-timers are sure to notice the similarity of certain tracks.
Especially the club playlist lacks highlights, safe maybe for “All Y’all” featuring members of the HBK Gang, who is also present for the dullest dancefloor effort, “Penetrate.” The Bay Area is well represented in terms of cameos, while fruitful collabos also involve southern artists. “In Dat Cup” with Z-Ro and Big K.R.I.T. is expectedly solid, but a special kind of chemistry exists between E-40 and Gucci Mane, who guests on two ruthless bangers, “Project Building” and “Pablo.” They fall on the side of the expertedly intimidating songs where already “Got That Line” and “Candlelight” make sure you don’t take E-40’s game lightly. Not one to limit his views to one perspective, he complements “The Art of Story Tellin Pt. II,” which laments how easily beef jumps off, with the action-packed “In a Bucket,” which warns, “If you ballin’ make sure that you got insurance, bra / With some money put up so your folks can bury ya.” Other offerings loom on a lighter note, such as “Mister T” or “Rep Yo District,” while the ice-grilling “Throwed Like This” is surprisingly personal.
The 2013 trilogy of “The Block Brochure” wouldn’t be complete with mind-easing music like the ’80s funk throwback by and with Bosko, “Money on My Mind,” the AutoTune escapade “I Be on My Shit,” rap spirituals backed by crooners like Mike Marshall and Donshae Trass such as “Home Again” and “What Kind of World,” or the heartfelt finale, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” which samples a speech Melle Mel gave at Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
In the end it’s inevitable to consider all six volumes of “The Block Brochure” and to flat out praise the quantity and quality of work that went into the series. It’s been a huge parade of national stars and local vets and whizzes, countless verses full of precise flows and on-point rhymes, a keen balance of new and old sounds that never denies its NorCal roots. And yet – if there’s ever been something like too much of an essentially good thing in rap, “The Block Brochure” is it. E-40 can be the most original of all rap originals, even he can’t avoid repeating himself. At the risk of calling the entire undertaking into question (and repeating an age-old critic complaint), less just might have been more.