The Ball Street Journal (Reprise/BME Recordings)

For an artist who stakes his style on all things kinetic and “flamboastin',” E-40's new album — his first since hyphy's high tide two years ago — is woefully contrived. If he'd merely taken up the challenge of following his breakout hit, 2006's My Ghetto Report Card, by refining its formula — the tweeter-pinching synths; the spacious bump of an 808 kick; and a fetish for cars that would make Steve McQueen blush — we'd still be left with an album of ear candy. But on The Ball Street Journal, 40's eagerness to stay pop distracts from the album's real merits. 

Sonically, Ball Street is a winner. The interplay of synths and bombed-out bass is unfailingly dynamic throughout. Even the soulful refrains, which have always been a 40 mainstay, are more affecting and effectively sung, as on the Auto-Tune–drenched lead single “Wake It Up,” featuring Akon. But the sheer number of ingredients reused from Ghetto (the most anal retentive being 40's strategy of opening both albums with Digable Planet samples) gives the impression of generosity gone awry. The disc's biggest flaws are in the lyrics. Too often 40's flow is bogged down by his hunt for the next catchphrase or novelty hit (“Poor Man's Hydraulics” repeats “I punch the gas/I hit the brakes” ad infinitum) — anything, it seems, to fill up the hyphy slang book he's rumored to be writing. But such maneuvering raises the question: From hyphy to where?  Unless he stops obsessing over his movement-cum-brand, E-40 will find himself on a fast track past the bank and straight into hip-hop oblivion.

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