E-40 is a shrewd businessman and competent rapper who at times verged on being a great rapper. But usually his desire to remain marketable outpaces his creativity — 40's endless repetition of certain slang words and quaint little sayings (i.e., "It ain't just bananas, it's coconuts") is more an attempt to create a brand identity than to come up with witty rejoinders. A self-anointed hip-hop "ambassador" who's made most of his fortune in other industries (a Fatburger franchise, a "Yay Area" slang primer, a liquor line, and San Jose's now-defunct Ambassador Lounge), 40 takes few risks with his music. When he finds a successful formula, like the "hyphy" style that shaped his 2006 album My Ghetto Report Card, he'll beat it past the point of death. Which explains why this year's The Ball Street Journal — basically a Ghetto Report Card reprise — already sounds like an anachronism.
The album opens with a hooky intro called "The Ambassador," based around a Digable Planets sample and a rousing rattle-and-clap beat. It would be a great track, were it not so uncannily similar to Ghetto Report Card opener "Yay Area," which had nearly the same beat (also buoyed by a Digable Planets sample), and practically the same rap (the words are slightly different, though the feel, tempo, and bar flows are the same). Granted, Ghetto Report Card was an infectious album, and so is this one. But it's still unforgivable: "Got Rich Twice" could be a bridge section to Turf Talk's 2004 hit "It's a Slumper"; "Poor Man's Hydraulics" is yet another "Muscle Cars" redux; "Pain No More" is a self-pitying rap ballad with many antecedents; "The Recipe" regurgitates the theme from 2006 song "White Girl," minus the double entendre; strip club song "Sliding Down the Pole" sounds like Too $hort's entire oeuvre; "Give Her the Keys" is an attempt to harness the already tiresome T-Pain Autotune phenomenon.
The most compelling track on Ball Street is the minimalist "I Can Sell It." It's the catchiest song, but more importantly, its title could be an epigraph for the whole album. (Reprise)
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