What makes a masterpiece? As outlets like Pitchfork have taken an increased interest in rap over the last decade, the big culture machine that used to be called “indie” has increased its influence over how non-“urban” (black and mostly working-class/working-poor) audiences have experienced rap. One of the best internal reflections and critiques on the role that classics-hunting tastemakers play in black popular music was, actually, published in Pitchfork a few years back, zeroing in on the cult of the “masterpiece.” Author Andrew Nosnitsky starts with the rapturous reception of Nas’s Illmatic (“an undeniable masterpiece, but… also a pretty narrow one”). He then examines how its self-consciously serious, introspective tone set a template that other rappers out to make “masterpieces” (i.e. big, era-summarizing albums that a major label will keep in print after singles, mixtapes, and one-offs have slipped into history) emulated.
I loved this article, and it interested me how tough it was find to find (a fate shared by many of Pitchfork’s other long features) behind the site’s main business: its daily grindout of reviews. These reviews, by the way, include the anointing of further classics, on exactly the lines that Nosnitsky identifies. Pitchfork’s lately given retroactive perfect-10’s to objet-d’art reissues of GZA’s Liquid Swords and Illmatic itself, giving the reviewers the chance to write rhapsodic (“The doors crumple open and the passengers vanish up half-lit stairwells into the Bridge. There is no Illmatic without the Bridge. Illmatic is the bridge”) odes to albums built for exactly that kind of Serious Appraisal.
I’m laughably poorly versed in rap and I don’t want to sound like I know enough to hazard an alternate history of the genre, but there are some rappers I love whose virtues have nothing to do with those of Liquid Swords and Illmatic— rappers whose voluble, good-times-y energy and omnivorous love of street sounds mean that their music will never get distilled into an Authoritative Statement, a statement that they’d likely be bored by anyway. Like E-40.
In the last two years, this 46-year-old rap forefather has dropped eight albums of material. His vocabulary is enormous (according to one survey, 5,270 unique words used in 35,000 lyrics– just a little ahead of Shakespeare), and his gift for slang is jawdropping. Remember learning that Shakespeare straight made up the words champion and discontent? Well, without E-40, the world wouldn’t have “fo shizzle,” “po-po” for police, “it’s all good” (!), “you feel me” (!!), “pop ya collar,” or “lettuce/scrilla/cheddar” as slang for money. (40 himself is modest in interviews, saying many of these terms came from his community in “San Yay” (the Bay Area), but damn, someone had to record them first.) 40 has a cheerful, elastic, bubbles-in-syrup voice and drops at least one amazing line a track. The production on his latest four or five records, the first I’ve been able to find my way into, is sometimes basic (“function music,” he calls it, flashy and fun when it’s not minimal and street-creepy), and his young guest MCs sometimes come off as too tough-kiddish for me to enjoy. But it’s the overall, overwhelming, cumulative experience of E-40’s music, the humanity and humor and unkillable spirit and obsessive detail in song after song, that I love best.
Here are a few tracks:
“I Don’t Work for Nobody” (from his double album with Too $hort):
“All I Need” (the giddy affirmative closeout to the first of his four independently-released Revenue Retrievin’ albums):
“That Candy Paint,” with Slim Thug and Bun B (speaking of detailing, here’s the chorus: “that candy paint, 84s, belts and buckles, chrome and grille / Leather seat, stich and tuck,TV screens and wooden wheels”):