No one would blame E-40 for calling it quits. The Vallejo-bred rapper born Earl Stevens released his debut solo album in 1993 and has put out a staggering array of records since. He also runs Sick Wid It Records, has a burgeoning liquor business, and has an adult son whose career is entering its second decade. E-40 has nothing left to prove, and yet he keeps going.
Part of this has to be due to his place in the pantheon. Stevens’ body of work is unimpeachable, and yet, he’s still criminally underrated. Few rappers have been as consistent for as long, and even fewer have remained fresh and decisive on the mic into their 50s. E-40 belongs on the Mount Rushmore of west coast rap, but he’s still scaling the mountain.
With his latest release, the sprawling and star-studded double album Practice Makes Paper, Stevens illustrates his command as a lyricist and power player in the rap game. He’s more of a film director working with an ensemble cast than a typical emcee: he has Quavo, Roddy Ricch, A$AP Ferg and ScHoolboy Q on one track, and Payroll Giovanni, Peezy and Sada Baby on another. These are triumphs led by an all-powerful sage, when in lesser hands they’d be bloated grabs for streams and clicks. Practice Makes Paper is an event, and E-40 is the ringleader.
Stevens has spent his entire career appreciated but never canonized within the mainstream. That’s unlikely to change, but those that know understand E-40’s role in the shaping of modern rap music. Practice Makes Paper is another notch in a belt that’s been buckled for nearly 30 years. E-40 doesn’t need to keep going, but it’d be a travesty if he ever stopped.
This new album is 26 songs long. Your previous album, The Gift of Gab, was only a dozen tracks. What went into orchestrating this massive release?
I wanted to take it back to what I’ve been doing for the past nine years. I was one of the first to do the double album back in 1998, with Element of Surprise. We had [the 1997 compilation] Southwest Riders, too, which was also a double album. I wanted to give my fan base a variety of music, songs of different flavors. I wanted to present different angles of the game with different content.
How do you even go about outlining something that big? Is it easy for you now that you’ve been doing it for so long?
Me and my team are always in the studio together. We talk about who would go good on certain tracks. We just reach out to folks and they reach out to me. We all just be there for one another. I wanted to make this a star-studded event. I wanted to put a bunch of features on one song, so I’ve got Quavo and Roddy Ricch on one hook, I’ve got ScHoolboy Q and A$AP Ferg on verses. I’ve got three or four features on a lot of these songs.
It’s almost like you’re a movie director collaborating with actors.
We making movies with lyrics. We paint pictures. We tell visual stories with our music. We’re doing a star-studded event, too. It’s all genuine, though. We all rock with each other. There ain’t nobody on the album that I feel uncomfortable having there. These are genuine people, there ain’t no fake shit.
You’ve always been that way. If people rock with you, you’ll do everything you can to give them a voice as well. Where does that desire come from?
I rock with those who rock with me, let’s just put it that way. If you’re out there making noise, and I make a song with you, it won’t fall on deaf ears. I wanna be on a song that’ll have some reach. I don’t wanna just get on records with artists I fuck with and for the songs to just sit there. There are lesser-known artists that I rock with, but they’re not out there the way they need to be. I just want the artists to work harder in pushing their product. We could do a great song with a bunch of stars, but if you ain’t pushing it, it’s a waste of time for all of us. I can only give you a jump. It’s up to you to keep the car running. I’ll rock with anyone—vintage rappers, young dudes, anyone.
How early in your career did you learn the absolute importance of investing in yourself and pushing your product?
You had no choice. We didn’t have nobody to help us. I couldn’t call any rappers doing their thing. Later, once I started making noise, I could, but you gotta make them pay attention to you. We had to work hella hard. Being from a small little city called Vallejo, we wasn’t known like that. We had to work even harder to get heard. It was by force, not choice, the way we did it. But it worked out for the best.
Is that why you ride so heavy for young rappers now — because you know how hard the struggle is?
Exactly. That’s right. I’ve got a big heart and I believe in good karma. I can’t save the world. I can’t help you if you don’t want the help. I just try to play my position. There’s a special place in my heart for up-and-coming talent. They can also help me. I can be introduced to some other fan bases, too. But it’s mostly just how I am. If I like you, I like you. Let’s go, let’s get this money. There’s enough money out there for everybody.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of In a Major Way. Looking back, how did that album inform the rest of your career?
Oh, shit. C’mon, man! That’s the album. My fan base and anyone that knows E-40 knows that’s the one. That’s my Doggystyle, that’s my Chronic or Reasonable Doubt. Everybody gotta have one of them. A few legendary albums by a few legendary artists. In my whole catalog, that’s the one. It’s not my favorite, though. My favorite is The Element of Surprise. That one is knocking on platinum’s door.
Do you think you’re underrated within the rap pantheon?
I’m definitely underrated. By far. By far, far, far. The game is goofy. They’re squares. If you ain’t from it, you might never comprehend me. If you’ve never been through what I’ve been through, if you ain’t had to adapt the way I’ve had to adapt, you may not feel me. If you woke, you gon’ love E-40. If you snoozin’, listening to mediocre rap, you trippin’. Get with a rapper that’s trying to teach you something, who is painting pictures with his lyrics. I come with so many styles and flows, I have a uniqueness. I just bring super dumbass slaps.
When I get on a record, you don’t know what kind of pattern I’m gonna bust. Who knows what I’m gonna flip? I’m unpredictable. When I end my rhymes, you have no idea what I’m gonna say. You looking for a curve? I’m gonna throw you a knuckleball. When they go right, I go left. I don’t wanna be like everybody else, I don’t wanna rap like everybody else. I’m grateful for this unique gold-ass squeaky voice.
Does being underrated still fuel you, or is it just exhausting at this point?
All it does is motivate me. But the only people talking shit on Twitter and stuff are squares. They have like 300 followers and have been on there since 2009 or something. And they following 1,700 people or something! [laughs] It’s just a loser on there talking about how I’m trash. I be laughing at ‘em.
They’ll be into me in a year or something like that. Their girlfriends will hit me up and be like, “40, unblock my boyfriend! He didn’t mean it. He’s sorry! He’s a big fan now.” [laughs] It’s just crazy. They always come around so I just leave it alone.
It’s funny, because their favorite rappers probably mess with you.
That’s real talk. That’s how it always go. That’s what I say on “GOAT”: “I’m your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper and my voice is an instrument.”
Are you still a Golden State Warriors fan now that they’re out of Oakland?
I’m a Dubs fan for life. It’s just 20 minutes once you get over the bridge. It’s right there. I’m a Warrior for life. When I built my mansion in 1996, my SportsCourt was Warriors-themed! That was 1996, you feel me? Not 2006 or 2016, but 1996. Come on now!
Back then, rap was much more divided by coast. Do you feel like the East Coast vs. West Coast stuff is mostly over now though because of the Internet?
Yeah, but there are still West Coast fans that don’t rock with East Coast rappers. Same vice versa. When you’re different like me, when you’re rare like a black hockey player, it’s gonna be hard. My biggest fans didn’t like me at first! At some point it just makes sense, because I’m really saying some shit. Now, a lot of my biggest fans are people that didn’t get it at first.