Snoop Lion has a new name and a new genre but has lost Dogg’s bite

April 22, 2013

In the music video for Snoop Doggy Dogg’s 1993 debut single, the magic of special effects allowed us to watch the Long Beach, Calif., rapper morph into a Doberman pinscher. The dog and the Dogg share the same long features and slim build. It was immediately apparent how Calvin Broadus got his rap name and that he couldn’t have picked anything better than Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Now, with the release of his 12th studio album, “Reincarnated,” Snoop is messing with perfection. He abandons commercial rap for reggae, and ditches his old name for a new one — Snoop Lion.

Hip-hop monikers are a beautiful thing. They speak to artistic transformation and reinvention, while often also connecting an artist to his or her roots. MCs take their names from such inspirations as physical features, childhood nicknames and hobbies. But when rappers — or any celebrity, really — make a mid-career name change, it usually comes from a less-pure place.

Sometimes the reasons are practical: dropping “Young” and “Lil” when one turns 21, for instance. Biggie Smalls adopted the clunkier Notorious B.I.G. to avoid a copyright lawsuit; Common Sense became just Common for similar reasons. T.I. was once Tip, but, to avoid confusion with Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, he lopped off the “p.” Rapper 2 Chainz once had a rap moniker that is unprintable in this newspaper and changed it because it’s tough to become a household name with a name that can’t be printed in a newspaper. Sometimes stage names just need streamlining, as when Nasty Nas became just Nas, or Snoop himself went from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Snoop Dogg.

Often, established celebrities change names for religious reasons: Think Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Yusuf Islam or when Madonna decided she wanted to be known as Esther. Then there are the public figures who change their names in financially motivated bids to freshen their brands. Machiavellian mogul Puff Daddy became P. Diddy then Diddy, making his name ever-shorter and catchier in his quest to stay relevant. Football player Chad Johnson’s switch to Chad Ochocinco pretty much defines icky, branding-related name change.

Snoop Lion’s transformation is, according to him, a religion-inspired switch. He was so moved by a trip to Jamaica that he converted to Rastafarianism. Critics claim it’s a marketing move. Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley’s backing band, the Wailers) has accused him of opportunism and cultural appropriation. The Rasta Millennium Council — a group that sees Snoop as no better than a college kid who wears a red-green-and-gold rasta cap while playing hackey sack and listening to “Legend” — is outraged.

Only Jah knows Snoop Lion’s heart, but cynics will find him to be as serious about Rastafari as Metta World Peace is about nonviolence.

“Reincarnated,” which is accompanied by a documentary depicting the series of events that led to Snoop switching up his spirit animal, is a reggae album, with the rapper serving as singjay — he mostly sings and does a little toasting. It’s not roots reggae as much as roots-ish “reggae,” with dub-light, reggae-pop production, and guests such as Miley Cyrus, Drake, Rita Ora, Akon, and, oh yeah, a couple of reggae folk. “Reincarnated” isn’t great reggae, but it is good music to smoke to, which has less to do with Snoop’s new patois and more to do with the evil genius of producer Major Lazer.

The album opens with the dubby “Rebel Way,” on which Snoop explains his transformation. Kinda: “I wanna be loved while I’m here and the only way to get love is to give love.” Indeed, the themes on the album are all about being a good citizen of the world. The man behind “Gin and Juice” is now drinking nectar sans liquor — he extols the virtues of soursop and mango on “Fruit Juice.” On “No Guns Allowed,” featuring Drake and Cori B, Snoop encourages us to put down our weapons. “Smoke the Weed” discusses global warming (among other topics), and on “Tired of the Running,” he disparages drug dealing: “Serving fiends like these people ain’t no kin to me / I can’t believe I’m out here killing my community.”

His newfound interest in ending gun violence and climate change while also partaking in clean eating and a more . . . enlightening manner of marijuana smoking could’ve been just as easily delivered on a hip-hop album. The fact that he felt he needed to change genres — identities even — to tackle these positive subjects is a bit of a slap in the face to rap fans. Rastafarians shouldn’t be the only ones offended.

Based on reports of Snoop Lion’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of his new religion and adopted homeland, “Reincarnated” seems to be less about spirituality and more an engineered attempt to cement Snoop as the artist of choice of weed smokers the world over. Maybe next he’ll rap in Dutch to appeal to the people of Amsterdam? But, no matter Snoop’s intentions, the main problem is that the album simply lacks the one thing that has made everything he touches — from Cadillacs to rap albums to porn DVDs — over the past 20 years a success: Snoop Dogg.

Godfrey is a freelance writer.

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