This week I saw one of the most — I don’t want to say “unbelievable” in a world where a sentient tetherball named Snooki gets paid seven figures to wobble drunkenly around the boardwalk in lucite heels, so let’s go with “interesting” — one of the most interesting pop culture developments in a few minutes: Snoop Dogg has changed his name again.
His first name change was in 1998, when, once again following the example of John Cougar Mellencamp (as has always been his wont), Snoop dropped the frivolous “Doggy” to go with the much more upright “Snoop Dogg.” Now he’s switched again to “Snoop Lion,” which is of course a nod to his rich Jamaican heritage, which dates back to last February, when he went there to record an album.
Jumping right over the weird incongruity of putting the words “Snoop” and “Lion” together — a dissonance on par with “Los Angeles Lakers” and “Utah Jazz” — everybody went right to a variation on the same joke: “I’m not sure I want to upgrade to Snoop Lion.” I love operating system-based comedy!
But performers change their names all the time these days. Puff Daddy’s done it like half a dozen times, and so has Roseanne. Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and NFL wideout Chad Johnson changed his to Chad Ochocinco (Spanish for Eight Five, his jersey number, because he’s a genius) and they both changed them back. And I don’t think any list of silly name changes would be complete without Metta World Peace, ironically the worst cheap-shot thug in the NBA.
But none of them did what Snoop is doing, which is fundamentally changing what he does. Snoop has been doing rap — specifically, guns/pimps/hos/Crips/Bloods West Coast gangsta rap — since 1992, when his guest verses on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic were the obvious highlight of an instant classic. His solo debut, Doggystyle, was released a year later, and is to this day one of the five best hip-hop albums ever made (for my money), if not the best. (I’m partial to the G-Funk, what can I say.)
We can argue about which is the best rap album ever — I’m biased to the classics of the early ’90s myself — but I would contend that Snoop is the best rapper ever. His voice is a totally distinctive instrument, like Coltrane’s or Eddie Van Halen’s. It only takes one word to know who you’re hearing. He lays way back on the beat, which makes everything way funkier (it’s no accident that Doggystyle is constructed almost entirely from P-Funk samples). And, above all, he makes it seem so, so easy. He never raises his voice, he never runs out of breath, and he never falls off the beat. There are a lot of great talent out there, but if there’s a better rapper than Snoop out there, I haven’t heard him.
I concede, of course, that without a Dr. Dre-level producer, his records aren’t that great. I haven’t even heard one in years. Has he had a hit since “Drop It Like It’s Hot?” What was that, like ’96? (And by the way, why is “Drop It Like It’s Hot” the only Snoop song club DJs ever play when it’s like the eleventh best Snoop song?) Anyway, yeah, his records have been spotty since Tha Doggfather, but I’d still insist that in terms of pure microphone talent, Snoop is in a class by himself.
Which is why it’s so surprising that he wants to give it all up and be, of all things, a reggae artist. Yes, Snoop went to Jamaica to record his 12th rap record, but he quickly went native, and (he says) was “called by the spirit” to abandon his familiar idiom, grow some dreadlocks, smoke a massive amount of Mother Nature (though to be fair, he would have done that anyway) and make a dub reggae album.
Other than Dee Dee quitting the Ramones to make the worst rap record ever, or Garth Brooks turning into Chris Gaines and making the worst emo-soft rock record ever, I can’t think of any analogue to this in the music world. But I can think of one in the sports world.
In 1993, after his third consecutive NBA title, and third consecutive Finals MVP, Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, claiming that he’d lost his motivation, having reached the pinnacle of his career and having nothing left to prove.
At his press conference announcing this new reggae album, Reincarnation, Snoop said much the same thing: “Rap is not a challenge to me. With no disrespect to other rappers, but they can’t fuck with me in rap … I’ve won every accolade you can get.” These two press conferences were exactly the same, except that Snoop’s smelled like a kennel that only boarded skunks.
When Jordan quit, rather than disappearing into the world of million-dollar golf skins games like everyone expected, he surprised everyone by signing a minor-league baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox and playing a season with their farm team, the Birmingham Barons. He didn’t change his name, but he traded his signature number 23 for 45. Everyone thought he’d fall on his face, and while he didn’t make the majors or anything, he did put in a respectable showing before returning to the NBA a year and a half later, where he promptly won three more titles, three more Finals MVPs, and two more league MVPs. One could argue (and many did) that the time away from “the game of basketball” (as Jordan insisted on calling it at all times) refreshed his love of the game and was essential to the Bulls’ second three-peat.
So maybe that’s what’s happening with Snoop. Let’s face it, Snoop is not the angry, downtrodden 22-year-old Crip that took over the rap game with “Gin and Juice” and “What’s My Name.” Dude has been a kajillionaire for almost 20 years now. He’s neither pimping, nor strapped. If you step to him, his likeliest reaction is to step back quickly to get out of the way of his eleven bodyguards, who will soon teach you not to step to Snoop. (They may or may not teach you how to Dougie. See kids? I’m hip!)
The point is this: rap is an angry young man’s game, and despite his peerless microphone skills, Snoop is definitely not that. So let him go play baseball for a while. He’s not so bad at it: his singsongy tenor was always somewhere between rapping and crooning anyway, and it’s pretty well suited for this music. He’s even kind of selling the Jamaican accent. And I would argue that this new single has the best production (if not the best material) of any record he’s done since he parted ways with Dre. Dude wants to mellow out and smoke tons of weed and sing (sing) about peace and love and Jah? Who could possibly begrudge him that?
More than likely though, he’ll come back and headline some huge package tour with Ice Cube and Ice-T and the Tupac hologram and the Biggie hologram and the Eazy-E hologram in a couple of years. Maybe he’ll even reunite with Dr. Dre for another record (if Van Halen can get back together, absolutely nothing is impossible). You can’t make a big comeback if you don’t leave. Let’s just make sure there’s no comeback after that. Nobody wants to see Snoop playing for the Washington Wizards.
Anyway, here’s Snoop’s new reggae single. Am I completely crazy, or is it not too bad?