The King of the City: The Best Rapper in 13 Hip-Hop Meccas

Bay Area


King: E-40
Crowning Achievement
: In a Major Way, the most perfect album there has been or will be; Then again during his post-hyphy fever dream return to greatness.
Predecessor: Mac Dre
Royal Court: Iamsu, Lil B, Husalah, Roach Gigz

At he settles into middle age, at 46 years old, it might seem an odd time to crown Earl "E-40" Stevens the King of the Bay. But then again, Jerry Brown, the governor of California—a place more associated with youth and vigor than, say, Michigan—is 75. The parallels between 40's career and Brown's are worth pointing out. They were promising as youngsters, rising through the ranks of their respective establishments through pluck and verve. In the mid-aughts, both men—neither originally from Oakland—decided they would try to become that city's mayor. Brown did so officially, and succeeded. E-40 tried to do it with stripped-down Lil Jon beats and failed, possibly deflating the whole ascendant Bay Area scene with it—but not before countless Volvos had rolled driverless down suburban blocks from Vallejo to Maine, much to the delight of a nation new to YouTube.

But now, Brown, somehow capable of wrangling the legislature better than the Austrian bodybuilder who preceded him, commands an increasingly functional Sacramento. E-40, too, seems to have recognized the power vacuum left in Northern California, and has stepped right in to fill it.

At the beginning of his career, E-40 sold tapes out of the trunk of his car in Vallejo, rapping with a delivery once compared to "Woody Woodpecker on crack.” His gangster tales of East Bay life were peppered with inspired turns of phrase, inane neologisms, and street-corner slick-talk seemingly from another era, all strung tightly over thumping beats. What Christopher Walken is to punctuation, E-40 is to syllable counts, allowing him to put his aggressively unabridged version of the English language to work for him in a way few other rappers ever have. And yet through it all he still exudes an endearing, if eclectic, regular-guy appeal. He invests in fast-food franchises. He loves jug wine and potato salad. He wrote a diss song for Rasheed Wallace. Most of his albums contain complicated, fruity cocktail recipes.

As the prospect of hyphy's nationwide popularity loomed in 2006, E-40 took up its mantle with “Tell Me When to Go,” a song that sounded like Bay Area rap put through the wringer, strained of the drugs and the attendant unrestrained goofiness. Apparently done accusing confused non-fans of "listening too slow," it seems he heeded their advice, meeting them somewhere in the middle. Later that year, E-40 released "U and Dat," finally earning himself a well-deserved nationwide hit after being ignored for nearly two decades. The sheer amount of negative space on the song is the most galling aspect of the song to an E-40 purist, not the gamely use of a T-Pain hook.

Thankfully, after struggling with adjusting his sound to the (then) marketable subgenre’s demands, 40 returned to his grubbier roots with an album spree. He released two albums at once in 2010 (Revenue Retrievin’: Day Shift and Night Shift), then again in 2011 (Overtime Shift and Graveyard Shift), then upped it to three in 2012 (The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil trilogy). He plans on doing the same again before this year is out. That would make 10 albums in four years, each one loaded with guest appearances from local Bay Area legends like Andre Nickatina, Husalah, Jacka, Mike Marshall, Messy Marv, Cellski, and Spice 1 as well as up-and-comers like Iamsu!, whose assist on “Function” scored 40 another nationwide hit. E-40 has achieved all of this by embracing the Bay Area as it is—not as he, or you, or anybody else would like it to be. That would be a terrible strategy for a politician, but fortunately for E-40, and for all of us, he’s a rapper. —Willy Staley

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