When Vince Staples releases his sophomore album Big Fish Theory next month, he won't be the only lanky rapper from Long Beach, Calif. with new music in the marketplace. Big Uncle Snoop Dogg, whose solo debut Doggystyle dropped the same year Staples was born, released his 15th studio album this week. And like the title Neva Left not-so-subtly suggests, his ubiquitous industry presence over the last quarter century is unprecedented in hip-hop.
Snoop's ancillary hustle is nothing to bark at. The chronic smoking upstart is a cannabis startup funder now, with a Hollywood resumé full of starring roles and cameos. He's even cooked up a surprise hit with Martha Stewart. But unlike so many of his early-'90s contemporaries, who made the leap to film and TV or executive suites only to record with decreasing frequency, Snoop is that rare bird who still gets a buzz from his first love.
That much was apparent one month ago when he hosted a bunch of music writers at Jimi Hendrix's famed Electric Lady Studios to preview his album. At their worst, press listening sessions can be an awkward dance. The artist bobs his head to the beat, trying to convince the writers present that his new album is his best. The writers bob their heads to the beat, eager to show appreciation for receiving such an exclusive industry invite.
Snoop, however, was under no such pretense. While a rent-a-bartender served complimentary drinks in the corner, he casually strode into Studio A carrying a laptop and plugged it in before introducing the concept behind his new LP. "Whatever it is that I'm doing, I never left the rap game. So what I wanted to do [is make] a record to engulf every phase of Snoop Dogg that you've heard over the last 25 years," he said, "from hearing me on 'Deep Cover' to hearing me with The Chronic, with my first album [Doggystyle], to Pharrell, to No Limit, to the reggae album, to the funk album, to all the different evolutions of Snoop Dogg."
He then preceded to fire up a blunt and let the music play, while dancing to the beat of his own groove as if no one was watching. Soon he was shrouded in a cloud of smoke that followed him around the room like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Snoop was cleaner, of course. The Louis Vuitton scarf draped around his neck flowed, like the length of his dreads, down his long limbs. Eyes closed most of the time, he mouthed his lyrics, losing himself in an impromptu performance like the ones he used to give for his mom's friends as a kid when she'd asked him to entertain her company back in Long Beach.
Even my mom is fond of Snoop Dogg. He's been her favorite rapper for years, and it's been a running joke between us for just as long. Thing is, she's not even a die-hard hip-hop fan. (Luther Vandross' Never Too Much was the last album I remember her wearing out.) But whenever Snoop makes an appearance on late-night or daytime TV, I get a googly-eyed text. So when I shot her a selfie of me and the Dogg after his Electric Lady studio session, she texted back: "Tell him how much I love him." I didn't relay the message. The last thing on Earth I need is to have Snoop Dogg putting my momma in one of his lascivious rhymes.
Her infatuation is as unlikely as America's long-term love affair with the Dogg. Never forget, Snoop has risen above things most black men in this country never get the opportunity to live down — including a real live murder rap, a bicoastal hip-hop-fueled feud, and so many threats against his own life that he was forced to escape Death Row. His friend Tupac, whom he inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just hours after his listening session, wasn't so fortunate. Snoop's success in spite of his past is a reminder that his gangster pedigree falls right in line with the principles on which this nation was founded.
He learned how to reinvent himself as a result and he hasn't stopped since. He's been Snoop the Pimp (Snoop Dogg's Hustlaz was the top-selling porn film of 2003); Snoop the Resurrector (2003's "Beautiful," his third top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit and his first since 1994's "Gin and Juice," became a huge shot in the arm for featured funk legend Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band); Snoop the Sidekick-To-Pristine-Pop-Stars-Desperately-Seeking-Street-Cred (he helped Katy Perry land her second No. 1 Billboard hit with "California Gurls"); and Snoop the Agitpropist (President Donald Trump's Twitter response to being parodied in the video for "Lavender" [Nightfall Remix] returned him to a political relevance he hadn't enjoyed since C. Delores Tucker was trying to ban gangsta rap).
On Neva Left, Snoop takes listeners down memory lane with retooled remakes of hip-hop classics "Big Mouth" (Whodini) and "Vapors" (Biz Markie), paying homage to their creators the same way he gave virtual dap to Slick Rick by redoing "La Di Da Di" on Doggystyle. The legendary KRS-One makes a standout appearance on "Let Us Begin," while Snoop partners with fellow weed heads Devin the Dude and Wiz Khalifa for the chill "420 (Blaze Up)," and Redman, Method Man and B-Real for the anthemic "Mount Kushmore."
"I just felt like I wanted to put out some music to represent the generation that I come from," Snoop said. "Just to let people know that I'm still here and I still do what I do."
The album, like his career, is a bit of a hodge-podge, but it's also a feat of nature. Snoop is the elder statesman who has never needed to mount a comeback. He crowned Kendrick Lamar the new West Coast king years before the artist was bold enough to self-declare it. He put Long Beach on the map by repping his hood so a next-gen artist like Vince Staples could present a much more introspective point of view. Yet Snoop's biggest asset is also his Achilles. He's so cool that he makes it look effortless. And in some ways, it must be. His lyrics have never been the crux of his gift. Rather, it's how he says them. In an era where a rapper's mainstream success often hinges on his ability to create inventive melodies, it's too easy to forget Snoop was the first to deliver rhymes with such sing-songy appeal.
His flow remains the same, even if everything else about hip-hop has changed. It may not always amount to a guaranteed hit. But his consistent relevance makes him among the most reliable in a game full of liabilities. Word to your mother.
May 21, 20178:00 AM ET