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References to Magazine Street often appear in his music. But on Poverty and Prosperity, an EP released at the beginning of last year, he moved away from this gangster persona and revealed an unexpected vulnerability. The project taps into E-40's religious roots, too, more so than any of his previous work. His grandfather was a preacher and his grandmother was "the mother of the church," he said, and the rapper has always been a devout Christian.
On that record, for instance, 40 raps about life and death in the inner city from a broader vantage point, one that considers how human drama falls into God's plan. "My whole thing is to make a gangster cry — whether it's tears full of joy or tears full of sorrow," he explained. "With songs like 'The End' — ain't gonna be no gangsters in the end. I advise everyone to listen to my song 'The End' featuring Krizz Kaliko. And listen to it. It's gonna tell you how it's gon' be. It's beyond us. I'm a true believer in the Creator. G-O-D."
In fact, 40 says that he received divine instructions to record the EP. "It was like God said, 'Don't care what it sell. It's not about that' — and it did great! But he was just like, 'Put it out.'"
He says he understands how music can be therapeutic and healing. "Music means a lot. Music can stop you from doing bad things. And it can also make you do bad things. But my music is, 'Hey, before you do this bad thing ...' I make sure that I tell 'em, 'Just understand these are the consequences.'
"'Be ready for 'em.'"
Lacing the Unlaced
E-40 gets a phone call from Droop-E, his older son, who's also a rapper and producer. He's is on his way to the studio for a recording session with Maloles. "Droop-E, talk to me, I talk back," he says into the receiver, echoing a line from his 2002 song "It's All Gravity."
It's difficult to name a rapper with more longevity and relevance than E-40. "And guess how I think it all unfolded? By me not actually becoming an overnight sensation," he explained. "I didn't sell 2 million or a million [at the beginning of my career]. I started out independent with small numbers."
He firmly believes that he's only as good as his last album, that one remains relevant by the strength of new releases rather than coasting on past accomplishments. Rap blogs with millennial readerships, such as Complex and Fader, have praised his new singles "Slappin'" and "On One," and Fader premiered The D-Boy Diary — a testament to his multi-generational fan base.
"Slappin'" in particular is a gem, with a bouncy beat, featuring "Broccoli" rapper D.R.A.M. on its goofy-grinned hook, and back-to-back verses by 40 and his protégé Nef the Pharaoh, a 21-year-old Vallejo native and Sick Wid It Records' rising star.
He also has featured on some of the biggest radio singles in recent years, such Big Sean's "IDFWU," the West Coast remix of Fat Joe and Remy Ma's "All the Way Up," and Ty Dolla $ign's "Saved," an homage to his own "Captain Save a Hoe." And his cosigns have been instrumental to the success of many of the Bay Area's biggest new rappers, such as G-Eazy and IAMSU.
E-40 said he didn't think he'd be rapping into his forties, but he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. "Even if I actually didn't sell any records anymore, I'd probably still make music for myself," he said. "God willing, long as I got my life, health, and my strength, and as long as I got my right mind — oh my. I'll end up making a hit record when I'm eighty."
But in recent years, he's also put a considerable amount of his time toward his alcohol enterprises. A longtime wine drinker ("Not trying to tell kids to do this, or teenagers, but I used to sneak into my mama wine," he said), his approach to his brand Earl Stevens Selections hasn't been too different from selling his first cassettes with The Click. He started out small, bottling wines through an independent contractor and selling them online. As demand grew, he began to sell it in stores.
"Next thing you know, it went from a palette — which is 56 cases — to a truckload," he said. "From a truckload to truckloads, you feel what I'm sayin'."
Now, he's got a line of cocktails, including the popular Slurricane Hurricane, and the E-40 beer we drank when I first arrived at his home. Soon, he'll be launching new brands of vodka, tequila, and whiskey.
E-40 is also a family man, and he and his wife, Tracy Stevens, have been married for almost thirty years. They met in the school marching band — she played clarinet — and their two sons, Droop-E and Issue, are both musicians, as well. 40 said their shared interests in music keep their relationship close.
His son walks into the studio with singer BAGO for his session. But he also needs a chance to catch up with his dad. He plays 40 three new beats by DJ Fresh, a veteran Bay Area producer. After listening to each ebullient, synth-driven beat twice, 40 settles on the second one. "I gas that thing all the way up if [Fresh] wants me to," he told his son.