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‘What’s my mutherf***in’ name?” drawled Snoop Doggy Dogg in the debut single from his debut album Doggystyle in 1993.
The question is as pertinent as ever. Having previously truncated his moniker to Snoop Dogg, the world’s most recognisable gangsta rapper upgraded to Snoop Lion to reflect his surprising conversion to the ideology of Rastafarianism.
But he kept the Snoop bit, derived from his childhood resemblance to the dog Snoopy in the cartoon strip Peanuts.
Snoop Doggy Dogg. Scooby Dooby Doo. There has always been an element of caricature to his profile, even when he was associated with the notorious Death Row records. The covers of his early releases were illustrated by canine cartoon images drawn by the artist Joe Cool. This childishness, together with the smoothness of Snoop’s verbal delivery, helped to soften the aggression of his thuggish lyrics and created a global superstar.
This week he releases his first reggae album, Reincarnated, to reflect his Rasta transformation. “I was at the forefront of the most violent time in hip hop. I was young. I was fly. I was pretty. I was flamboyant. I was the greatest of all time,” he says, evoking the bravura of America’s greatest sportsman and another religious convert. “But I’m reckless at times and that’s what forced me to find a new path and I chose to be peaceful.”
The words are taken from a new documentary - mostly filmed in Jamaica and also called Reincarnated. Made by the youth publisher Vice, it was launched at the Toronto Film Festival. Snoop’s conversion is having a multimedia launch.
At 41, this married father of three children is apparently ready to leave his mack daddy days behind and embrace a new philosophy. So is this Snoop’s coming of age? Can we take him seriously? For Rastafarianism is a serious practice, rooted in Bible study, meditation and a strict diet. “Smoking weed and loving Bob Marley and reggae music is not what defines the Rastafari indigenous culture,” Snoop was recently warned by the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council in an angry letter apparently prompted by the former pimp’s loose language in recent interviews promoting his new record.
More damagingly for someone who is trying to begin a fresh career as a reggae artist, Bunny Wailer - the genre’s greatest living icon and a practising Rasta - has denounced the American as an imposter, accusing him of “outright fraudulent use of Rastafari community’s personalities and symbolism”.
The morals of hip hop are often confused, but “keeping it real” is a requisite trait. “I’ve always been me. I’ve never faked the funk,” Snoop protested recently. He evolved into Snoop Lion following a visit to a temple of the Rastafarian Nyahbinghi Order in Jamaica.
The first words you would use to describe his vocal style are laid-back. There is tonal warmth that somehow conjures California sunshine. For new listeners it was something different to the tension in the music of New York rappers. Like a malt whisky or high-grade marijuana (a better analogy for an inveterate weed smoker like Snoop), it was strong content but deliciously smooth.
Dr Dre’s funk-fused beats were integral to this effect. After the pair’s phenomenally successful collaborations on Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggystyle, LA became the new epicentre of hip hop and gangsta rap’s two biggest icons were international celebrities.
Snoop is not renowned as a wordsmith, though lyric writing is a key attribute in a rapper. The quality of his output between his debut album and Reincarnated is variable. He has struggled to convince some fans that he can work independently of Dre. (His work on the 2001 Dre anthem Still D.R.E. was another career highlight.) But he is admired and liked by his peers where jealousies can have deadly consequences. “You might not realise how extensive and hot Snoop’s body of work is until you go to a concert and start hearing all of those hits back to back,” said the rapper Kool Moe Dee.
In what is often a short-lived trade, Snoop has enjoyed remarkable longevity. He has achieved this through the sheer force of his persona. He is tall and - despite his constant toking - his eyes sparkle with a sense of fun. He is possessed of effortless charisma. People love him.
Maintaining this popularity has been a precarious process. In 1996, he found himself in the dock charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder. He was cleared but has said since that he was expecting to be convicted. The episode was damaging to his brand - “a lot of people were scared to meet me”.
The idea that he never entirely gave up his criminal connections has no doubt helped to sell records but it is a thin line to tread. “To pimp a bitch is a craft,” he recently told a writer from The Guardian, defending an activity he pursued even after becoming wealthy. “You couldn’t pimp a bitch if I put you in a room with a hundred hos.”
When the film version of Starsky & Hutch was made in 2004, Snoop was the obvious choice to play Huggy Bear, America’s favourite TV pimp. But despite numerous film cameos he does not have the serious acting talents of rappers such as Ice Cube and Mos Def.
He has tried to soften before. After the rap feud which claimed his friend Tupac Shakur in 1996, a shocked Snoop said, “Who wants to be living that life where we gotta be looking over our shoulders?”
If Snoop is tired of rap, then reggae might seem a natural progression, especially given that it has always celebrated eccentricity and the creative qualities of cannabis.
But fans might not appreciate that Snoop’s new album is named for the preposterous - if not heretical - notion that he is Bob Marley reborn.
Despite the production skills of Diplo, Reincarnated is a cod reggae album. Rap has its origins in reggae but rather than try to adopt his obvious skills to toasting, the Californian chooses to sing - in a naff Jamaican accent.
There is none of the thunder of Jamaican Rastafarian artists, and one promotional single, La, La, La, would not be out of place as entertainment at a seven-year-old’s birthday party.
But then neither would that lovable ex-gangster Snoop, no matter what animal he turned up as. - The Independent