The change isn't so shocking, is it? Even back in the early days of Snoop Doggy Dogg, when Calvin Broadus was putting hands in the air from the roof of a Long Beach record store, or dangling a long roll of jimmy hats with a sly smile, you detected a certain joie de vivre, a playfulness that made Snoop's gangsta persona a lot more fun and a little more approachable than his peers.
The lightness showed though his appending of "-izzle" to any and every noun, along with his unflappable flow, even in the celebratory themes of his best-loved songs, like "Gin and Juice." And yes, Snoop was also scary to large parts of White America when he arrived — recall that he was tried for murder (and acquitted) in 1993. But if Dre wore a stoic non-expression, and Ice Cube had that signature scowl, gangsta Snoop's natural visage seemed to be a self-confident grin. Later he even became "America's Most Lovable Pimp" — a Rolling Stone-awarded label so ironic that only such a weirdly prismatic figure could have inspired it.
Now, Snoop Dogg the rapper wants to be Snoop Lion the reggae singer. Sort of. In Reincarnation, the documentary film about his conversion, it becomes clear that Snoop sees the partial reinvention as a way for him to finally ascend to the cultural position he thinks is rightfully his. "I know Obama wants me to come to the White House, but what the fuck can I perform?" he asks early in the film, making the order of concerns clear. Snoop has grown into such a ubiquitous presence as a rapper, businessman, and reality TV star that perhaps a White House welcome does seem reasonable. (Hell, Obama, like everyone else under 50, probably has Snoop on his iPod.) There's only one problem, which is that the guy made his name advocating drugs, pimping, and violence.
By disavowing rap, then — not quite the act of rapping so much as the street culture — and embracing a music of earnest peace and positivity, Snoop believes he will finally be free to gain the stature he deserves. Unsurprisingly, Reincarnation shows a Snoop completely removed from the gangsta life. It reminds us that he's been married to Shante Taylor, albeit sometimes tumultuously, since he was a very young man. He did pimp professionally in the mid-2000s, but gave it up. After pleading no contest to felony charges in 2007, he no longer carries a gun. The only transgression we see is the seemingly endless consumption of marijuana (sometimes as many as 30 joints a day, he says), but even that hardly qualifies as rebellious anymore.
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of Snoop's reinvention, with all its ensuing hype and media coverage. Yet we found ourselves somewhat empathizing with the man. He wants to continue making music, but to rhyme about thuggery and pimping would be utterly disingenuous at this point in his career. At 41, he's survived where many of his peers in rap didn't, he's still popular, and he's rich. Why wouldn't he want to make genuine celebratory songs instead of hollow gloomy ones?
So Snoop travels to Jamaica, entourage in tow, to work on his reggae album and become initiated as a proper Rastafari. Along the way he hangs out with Bunny Wailer, meets some young artists in a Trench Town slum who make better music than he does, visits a school for challenged youth, grins constantly, and smokes approximately 91 pounds of marijuana. It's a mostly fun romp, although the narrative bogs down toward the end.
But as much as the story tries over and over to illustrate Snoop's solemn commitment to the Rastafari religion and to reggae music, it never convincingly overcomes his foreignness. Snoop appears as an overweening outsider, trying too hard in every situation to mask the recentness of his conversion and the obvious disparity between himself and his hosts. He grew up in poor, violent neighborhoods decades ago, but his edges have been rounded off. Aside from a few day trips, he sleeps and works in Jamaica at a posh resort/recording studio that looks out over a sweeping view of the Caribbean.
One of the revelations of the film — and one that's backed up by the songs from the Reincarnated album put out prior to its April 23 release — is that Snoop is more of a featured performer than a chief architect. He issues dictates to a team that includes executive producer Diplo and a battery of singers, songwriters, and musicians, including the Police's Stewart Copeland. Snoop sometimes says what he wants, but he's never the one in charge of making it happen.
This may be why the songs released so far sound more like Diplo's Major Lazer project than anything else. The rhythms and atmospherics are impeccable, even if the overall sound is basically off-the-shelf reggae and dub. Snoop is a capable rapper but a severely constrained singer at best. With so many guests, his contribution to any given song is hard to discern. The best of the new songs to see release so far, "La La La," so heavily samples "Artibella" by reggae singer Ken Boothe that it might as well be a remix. The rest of them are forgettable.
Let's recall, though, that reggae and hip-hop are close cousins. It was a Jamaican immigrant — DJ Kool Herc — who brought the sound system party format to New York and turned it into hip-hop. Go back and listen to early '90s rap records, including Dr. Dre's debut The Chronic, on which Snoop is basically a co-star, and you'll hear plenty of Jamaican patois.
Which is, again, why it's not all that surprising that an aging, successful rapper like Snoop would look to the ancestral, easygoing genre of reggae for inspiration. The likeable elements of Snoop's goofy persona unfortunately don't shine through all the serious Rastafari testifying or the wannabe-Marley retreads, though. And no matter how deeply Broadus tries to insert himself into his new character, he'll never quite get away from Snoop Dogg. The text on the poster for his 4/20 Fillmore concert this week is unmistakable: "Snoop performing his classic smash hits." He may not be a gangsta anymore, or even the lovable pimp — but those old rhymes die hard.