Although he has been one of the most consistent artists in any genre for the better part of three decades, E-40 often does not get his proper respect as an MC and a business man. In the latest episode of Unsung, however, his enduring career is properly celebrated, and what a story it is. In addition to commentary from 40, himself, the documentary includes contributions from B-Legit, Suga-T, D-Shot, Sway Calloway, Davey D, Too Short, Barry Weiss and more.
As is customary with the TV One show, the special begins with the artist born Earl Stevens, Jr.’s childhood. 40 was raised in Vallejo, CA, in the Golden State’s Bay Area, by his mother who worked in a nearby prison and his father who was a talented musician. While in high school, Stevens formed his group The Click, consisting of Suga-T, D-Shot and his cousin, B-Legit. The crew would forge a bond that has lasted to this day, both on wax and in life.
After graduating from high school, Earl, who was a talented artist, went to Grambling State University, along with B-Legit, to continue his studies. After he and his cousin won a talent show there, they realized they had something special and returned to the Bay to pursue their Rap careers in earnest. After experiencing rejection, initially, they took control of their own destinies, pressing up records with their own money. 40 Water had his first breakthrough single with 1994’s “Captain Save A Hoe.”
Contrary to what songs like that may have suggested, 40 did not subscribe to the stereotypical hedonistic lifestyle often associated with young artists. Instead, he married his high school sweetheart and began to build wealth, buying a home and investing in his flourishing music business. His sales were going so well independently that, when approached by Jive Records for a deal, Stevens was able to structure an unprecedented arrangement where he was allowed to maintain the same profit margin he had on his own for the first 150,000 copies sold, before more traditional record deal economics kicked in.
While on Jive, 40 began to forge deep relationships with artists like Tupac, Too Short, MC Eiht and others, and his profile began to skyrocket. Nearly every year for well over a decade, he put out albums that consistently reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. When his arrangement with Jive ended, he re-invented himself with the help of the likes of Lil Jon, only to emerge stronger.
A constant throughout the Unsung episode is discussion of Stevens’ uncanny business acumen. Though he’s always had a successful music career, he saw it as important to diversify his revenue streams. As such, he brought the first Fat Burger franchise to the Bay Area, owned a club, had his own brand of malt liquor and, more recently, launched his own line of vintage wines.
Unlike many artist documentaries E-40’s story arc only continues to go up. In 2015, he had one of his most successful years to date, recently celebrated 25-years of marriage, and shows no signs of slowing.