Last time we checked in with Earl Stevens [click to read], he had hitched his wagon to the burgeoning Hyphy movement and was threatening to grow dreadlocks like his new business and musical partner Lil Jon. That formula resulted in “40 Water” finding renewed commercial success with My Ghetto Report Card. You can’t blame E-40 for wanting to stick to the script.

The Ball Street Journal can best be described as 40‘s attempt to make some necessary tweaks to the formula he used last time around. In some respects, this album finds him painting by numbers, right down to using Digable PlanetsLady Mecca for a vocal sample on the opening track. None of this is to say Ball Street Journal isn’t a quality album. A little over a year later, it would appear that the Bay Area ambassador’s follicles aren’t the only thing growing. If anything, 40‘s ever-improving flow and ability to adapt to Hip Hop’s changing climate should motivate some of the game’s other elder statesmen to step their game up.

One of the criticisms most heard about My Ghetto Report Card, was that Lil Jon stepped in like Deebo from Friday and took over the latter half of the album. There should be plenty of Bay Area slap to keep loyal fans satisfied this time around. There are a ton of guests, but they all manage to stay in their lane. “The King of Crunk,” T-Pain [click to read] and Akon [click to read] appear to help craft the singles and the aggressive club offerings. They’ll likely get mixed reactions, as neither compares to “Tell Me When to Go” or the guilty pleasure of “U and Dat.” The Game [click to read] and Snoop Dogg also assist on the ode to self-medication, “Pain No More” [click to listen].

Aside from his endless dictionary of slang, E-40‘s best weapon is his sage wisdom. Even the less enjoyable tracks offer witty bars mixed with some game. “Tell It Like It Is” may contain 2008’s best assessment of the rap game, in the form of 40 spitting, “You niggas cry too much nowadays/you niggas feelings get hurt too easy/might as well wear a tampon/might as well be a breezy/a closed mouth don’t get fed/and a lazy hustler don’t get bread/pimpin’ I can’t read minds/I don’t know what’s in your head.” Additionally, 40 incorporates classic cuts such as “Public Enemy No. 1” (“I’m On One”) and Ice-T‘s “Colors,” (“Earl”) to provide a nice balance of old and new.

Unfortunately, Ball Street Journal suffers from a similar affliction as its predecessor. On the latter half of the album, 40 is caught unsuccessfully trying to recreate his T-Pain assisted hit from 2006. While “Fonzarelli” has always used male vocalists to some extent, it gets excessive on an album that already has 19 tracks. Luckily, even these R&B indulgences find 40 spitting about everything from alcoholism and poverty to gentrification and the strip club. You can never say “40 Water” lacks perspective.

Much like the malt liquor bottles he takes his name from, 40‘s flow is an acquired taste, and this album reaches both dizzying heights and sometimes toxic lows. Ultimately, he finishes strong. The fact that E-40 continues to improve his flow after 20 years in the game is a testament to his dedication to the craft. While the suits at Warner Brothers no doubt moved his release date up to take advantage of some post-holiday consumerism, The Ball Street Journal would be a solid purchase at any time of the year.