A couple of weeks ago, the entire rap world welcomed A Tribe Called Quest back with open arms. That was exactly as it should’ve been. Tribe had come back with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, their first album in 18 years,
and it was absolutely stunning — a warm and welcoming opus, a final chance to hear the late Phife Dawg rapping alongside his old comrades, and a staggering showcase for Q-Tip, both as a rapper and a producer.
In recent years, Q-Tip’s only been intermittently active in rap, and We Got It From Here served as a powerful reminder that, more than a quarter-century after his debut, he’s still one of rap’s smoothest and most forward-thinking sound manipulators. Coming a few days after Donald Trump was elected President, We Got It From Here hit like a small miracle, a reminder that beauty could exist in the world. It effectively shored up Tribe’s legacy, already one of rap’s greatest and most acclaimed. But if it felt miraculous for this long-absent group to return with something great, I have to ask: What about the people who have been here this whole time, quietly cranking out great music and hiding in plain sight? What about someone like E-40?
When you take a second and look at it, E-40’s story is nearly as unlikely and astonishing as that of a group like Tribe. In 1990 — the same year that Tribe released People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm — the Vallejo, California rap group the Click released their debut EP Let’s Side on Sick Wid It, the local label that Click member E-40 had founded a year earlier. E-40 wasn’t just the group’s label boss; he was also the obvious, immediate standout member — a goofy motormouth who talked greasy shit while over-enunciating every word and spraying syllables all over slow-rolling, bass-heavy Bay Area beats. Over the next few years, he only grew more verbose and confident, adapting a flowery vernacular that would cosmically expand the rap-slang dictionary. He became a local legend, and then a regional one, and then a pan-regional one, developing a rabid Southern fanbase, crystallizing the alliance when he signed on with Lil Jon and made a half-successful national-stardom push in 2006.
That whole time, he just kept making music. His first solo EP was Mr. Flamboyant in 1991. His first solo album was Federal in 1993. With his first major-label album, 1995’s forever-classic In A Major Way, he went platinum. In the late ’90s, he showed up on No Limit and Cash Money records — a sign that he was an endlessly respected figure and an elder statesman already. He did all this without trend-chasing. When hyphy took over the Bay Area, 40 signed with Lil Jon and effectively became the face of the movement, even though he had predated it by at least a decade and even though it took a whole lot of younger rappers to come up with it. Nobody minded, though, since 40 had helped create the conditions that would allow hyphy to exist.
Since his flirtation with mainstream stardom, he’s continued to make music at a ridiculous clip. In 2012, for instance, he released three massive albums on the same day, and then he did the same thing again the next year. Nobody’s really expecting E-40 to make hits anymore, though sometimes one of his singles will still hit — 2012’s “Function,” 2014’s “Choices (Yup).” And younger rappers are still bringing him in for guest-verses; he was, after all, the other voice on Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” in 2014.
For the most part, the E-40 of today is making music for his cult — but then, so are Tribe. And in all these hundreds — maybe thousands — of songs that E-40 has made over the years, there’s been no real fall-off. He’s still the exact same rapper he was in 1990. He still takes obvious, audible delight in coming up with some newer, sillier way to talk street shit. He still savors the taste of words in his mouth. He still comes up with singularly goofy similes: “bust your head like a piñata,” “stinky like a dog park.” He still twists language in whatever ways he likes, forcing meaning to submit to the sheer sound of the words he picks: “I’m a goon with the spoon, I make it do what it do / The dude who taught me how to cook? His name was Raoul.” On The D-Boy Diary, the massive new double album that he released last Friday, he shares space with voices from across the rap landscape, all eager to pay homage: California hitmakers like G-Eazy and Kid Ink, younger originals like Gucci Mane and Lil B, restless young voices like Kamaiyah and D.R.A.M. and Nef The Pharaoh, old comrades like B-Legit and Rick Rock. They’re all there because they know something: We are lucky to still have E-40 in our lives, still operating at such a high level.
For plenty of reasons — for his up-from-nothing indie-label spirit, for his relentless linguistic inventiveness, for the way he’s navigated a changing rap landscape for longer than some of his fans have been alive, for the way he’s come to embody an entire regional scene — you could argue that E-40 is due the same level of respect that A Tribe Called Quest are getting right now. The D-Boy Diary is nowhere near as great an album as We Got It From Here, but that album was an event, and The D-Boy Diary doesn’t even try to be one. It’s just one more collection of good songs in a never-ending string of them. And anyway, the comparison isn’t even fair; The D-Boy Diary is three or four times as long as We Got It From Here, and it still has almost no skipworthy songs in its insane 44-track length. E-40 is at the point in his life when two of his sons (Droop-E and Issue) are vital rap voices in their own right, and he is still capable of making an album like this. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that our legends aren’t going to be around forever, and we should appreciate them while they’re still here. We should appreciate the shit out of E-40 right now.
1. The Cool Kids – “Connect Four”
If the Cool Kids transcended their original internet novelty-rap context, it was because of the elegant nonchalance they brought. So it’s lovely to hear that casual quality evolving, still strong on this reunion track with this spacious and moody beat.
2. Rapsody – “Ooowee” (Feat. Anderson .Paak)
Rapsody is usually so airy and impressionistic and poetry-slammy that it feels revelatory to hear her just snap over a dusty and sinister ’90s boom-bap beat like this one. And anyone who can have Anderson .Paak as a hypeman really should have Anderson .Paak as a hypeman.
3. Jimmy Wopo – “Back Door” (Feat. Sonny Digital)
Grizzled Pittsburgh youngster Jimmy Wopo is going to do big things in 2017. And if you need to let Sonny Digital rap on your track to get a Sonny Digital beat, well, then you let Sonny Digital rap on your track.
4. Juelz Santana – “Up In The Studio Gettin Blown”
No one needs a nearly 90-second intro of some guy talking about how big Juelz should be, but everyone needs Juelz back on his grimy New York snarl shit, talking about “catfishing for ass-whippings.” Hearing Juelz shout out Bobby Shmurda really connects some dots, doesn’t it?
5. Lupe Fiasco – “Made In The USA”
I’ve been through so many phases with Lupe Fiasco, from love to aggravation to complete indifference. And finally, I am forced to acknowledge that he can fucking rap when he feels like it. On this song, he feels like it.