Monday, April 22, 2013

album review: 'reincarnated' by snoop lion

Let me tell you a story.

When I was sixteen, after getting my beginner’s permit, I began learning how to drive with a close friend and an instructor. On one chill evening, the instructor asked if he could put some music on while I was driving, and he asked me what genre I’d prefer. At that time, I was on something of an Eminem kick (like every other teenage boy growing up in the mid-2000s), so I said hip-hop and rap would be fine. He asked me which rappers I listened to, and I said Eminem and Dr. Dre and a few other acts in that vein.

His eyes lit up. ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘you haven’t heard nothing yet’, and he slid a newly burnt CD into the car’s stereo. Immediately a smooth, rollicking tone filled the car, music that I had occasionally heard in passing on the radio but had never really been exposed to in any significant way. I was immediately intrigued, and for the next several weeks, whenever we would go out for a drive, we’d put on that music and the ride would go smoothly and easily.

That music was g-funk, courtesy of 213, a group consisting of Nate Dogg (RIP), Warren G, and the legendary Snoop Dogg. It was my first real exposure to hip-hop outside of Eminem’s enclave, and while I had heard Snoop Dogg’s verse on ‘Bitch Please: Part II’ on The Marshall Mathers LP, I gravitated more to Nate Dogg’s authoritative and powerful baritone that carried the majority of those tracks. To me at that time, Snoop Dogg just seemed like another gangsta rapper, and everything I heard from him that got popular in the waning years of the decade reinforced that. It didn’t quite help matters that on his mainstream hits, he always sounded way too laid back and chill to take seriously, and compared to the assertive flow and intricate wordplay of OutKast, I didn’t quite see the appeal of Snoop Dogg.

In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I finally began to understand why Snoop Dogg worked as a performer, his appeal finally crystalizing on his collaboration with Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars: he was cool. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how many rappers and singers on the scene really weren’t cool in the slightest. I mean, Jay-Z wasn’t really so much cool as coldly dignified and professional, very much owning the label of ‘the new Sinatra’. Kanye and R. Kelly weren’t really cool either – most of the time they were too wrapped in their own egos/insanity to seem all that cool, falling more in line with eccentricity. For a while, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and T.I. seemed cool, but the workmanlike nature of their music gradually seemed to make some of that coolness slip away (plus, Lil Wayne released Rebirth and that kind of destroyed his ‘coolness’ in one fell swoop). And too many of the gangsta rappers were bound up in their own egos and being ‘hard’ to really come across as cool (hell, most of the time I don’t even think they were having fun).

But Snoop Dogg was cool, and the effortless swagger that seemed to pervade his image was a big breath of fresh air. Now, granted, a lot of my issues with him remained – it was tough to tell when Snoop Dogg was trying or not, and more often than not I got the feeling he wasn’t – but I understood the appeal. People like cool, they respond to cool, they gravitate towards cool. And frankly, I was fully expecting Snoop Dogg to coast on that coolness for the rest of his career.

And then in 2011, Nate Dogg passed away - only days before the release of Snoop Dogg’s newest album. From this point forward, I can only speculate, but I do know that Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg weren’t just bandmates, but close friends, and if the outpouring of grief from Snoop Dogg over Twitter was any indication, Snoop Dogg wasn’t taking it well. Much like Eminem losing his best friend Proof, the loss of a close, personal friend sent ripples through Snoop Dogg’s life and after he finished touring, he took a trip to Jamaica that would change his life.

In 2012, Snoop Dogg announced that he had converted to Rastafarianism and he was leaving rap to become the reggae act Snoop Lion, which he described as a ‘reincarnation’. And while it was very tempting to join the mockery of this ‘evolution’ like everyone else on the Internet, I have to say I was intrigued. For an artist decades into his career, this was precisely the right way to reinvigorate a fanbase and attract newcomers to his discography. And reggae (along with its cousin funk) was a genre that I’ve always liked, but have had a lot of trouble understanding, mostly due to some unfortunate cultural myopia on one hand and my difficulty deciphering Jamaican accents on the other. So if Snoop Dogg – forgive me, Snoop Lion - was taking steps towards reggae with a full album, it might provide a new entry point for me into a genre I’ve had difficulty understanding. And really, if there was an artist on mainstream radio to approach the laid-back reggae rhythms and deft social commentary, Snoop Dogg would have probably been my first suggestion.

And on a slightly broader note, I also wondered whether or not the introduction of a modernized form of reggae might be good for the pop charts. Keep in mind that in 2012 we were coming off of the hangover of the club boom, and the slightly more organic mainstream indie trend was only beginning to take root. So on that note, I considered the possibility that a reggae/funk revival might add a certain flavor to the charts – and really, while it did get a little overblown throughout the early-to-mid 70s and throughout the mid-90s with the ska revival, I wasn’t going to deny the fact that scrag rhythms and greater diversity of instrumentation couldn’t hurt pop music. After all, a little cultural diversity never hurt anyone, particularly in an era where k-pop was starting to notch mainstream chart hits (by the way, PSY’s new single ‘Gentlemen’ sucks). And besides, in a time where Ke$ha is working to revive the psychedelia and punk energy of the 70s, why shouldn’t some of the other elements of that decade make a revival?

So I was definitely interested in Snoop Lion’s new album Reincarnated, and now that I’ve had a chance to take a look, what do I think? 

Well, it’s not a perfect album, and I would be stretching it to say that this will be the album that’ll revitalize reggae in a mainstream context. But it’s a very good album nonetheless, and it does enough right for me to call it a definite success for Snoop Lion. And while there are definite flaws and problems, they are the kind of problems that are typical of an artist changing and evolving his style, and are thus a bit easier to overlook. Sometimes, experimentation doesn’t always work, and such missteps are a bit more forgivable on a transitory album like this.

Let's begin with the obvious question, namely whether or not Snoop Lion had a chance in hell of not only creating a passable reggae sound, but embodying the spirit behind that sound. That latter element, the spirit behind the music and the notes, is something that I'll admit that I can recognize, but find very difficult to quantify or articulate. After all, it's not just about playing the notes, but infusing those notes with the necessary emotion and soul to make a resonant song. And while Snoop Dogg's effortless cool worked with g-funk, I had the suspicion that even though the coolness might embody the superficial elements of reggae, he'd need to actually try in order to nail the spirit.

Fortunately for us all, that's exactly what Snoop Lion does here, and he delivers a surprisingly strong performance with more soul and emotion than I've heard in his music in years. What's odd is that the cool confidence is still there in the delivery, but it's tempered by a wisdom and melancholy that seems to fly in the face of his hip-hop origins. I'll come back to the latter when discussing the lyrical content, but it's certainly a leap that shows Snoop Lion is moving away from the genre of his past.

And here's where I run into one of the oddities of this album, in that while Snoop Lion has entirely discarded his hip-hop trappings, I don't think anyone told the producer of this album, because there are more than a few tracks on this album that have a much stronger hip-hop styling than reggae, and the inclusion of rappers like Drake and pop starlets like Miley Cyrus tend to draw more attention to that. Now fortunately for all of us, the production work is top quality and avoids the worst of the EDM trends that blighted's atrocity, but there are still places where the hip-hop elements feel jarring when contrasted with Snoop Lion's wholehearted embrace of understated reggae, complete with the themes that typically run through that music, themes that definitely feel out of place over a typical 'money-cash-hoes' hip-hop track. It certainly feels glaringly out of place on 'Torn Apart', which co-opts only the shreds of a Caribbean rhythm over a blaring and obnoxious horn section and Rita Ora's over-excited delivery. 

However, I suspect some of that might have always been an issue with Snoop Lion's attempted modernization of reggae for a mainstream audience, and I can admit that part of the problem are my own expectations on what hip-hop subject matter is in the mainstream. Fortunately, Snoop Lion does the smart thing with this album and brings behind him a series of dancehall artists from Jamaica to enhance the atmosphere and Snoop Lion's credibility. And indeed, these artists fit the style of the album very well, with the blending of more organic rhythms with the electronic beats that dominate dancehall and modern hip-hop today. 

That said, there's something of a subject matter discrepancy here, because the socially conscious reggae that Snoop Lion seems to have drawn his inspiration from doesn't seem to gel nearly as well with the shallower lyrics from the dancehall artists. This comes into the sharpest relief on 'Fruit Juice', an asinine track where Snoop Lion teams up with dancehall artist Mr. Vegas to sing a song about the nutritional benefits of various flavours of fruit juice. It's as utterly dumb as it sounds, and easily the low point of the album. And on that subject, his collaboration with dancehall artists Mavado and Popcaan also comes across as a trite, borderline crunk track that could have sounded like a decent dancehall song if the hip-hop beat at the back of the track didn't sound so stridently out of place. In fact, the solitary exception to this unfortunate problem is the inclusion of reggae artist Collie Buddz on 'Smoke The Weed', which is a song where the title is completely self-explanatory and is a song that Snoop Lion could have knocked out of the park entirely on his own.

Bizarrely enough, the best songs on Reincarnated aren't really the collaborations with reggae or dancehall artists, but with other pop and hip-hop stars, who seem surprisingly game for this sort of material.  Snoop Lion brings his new Polish hip-hop protege Iza onto 'The Good Good', where she provides backing support to the sort of light, upbeat reggae love song that everyone assumed Snoop Lion could knock out of the park (unsurprisingly, he does). Granted, the song is still very solid and very good, but I was expecting Snoop Lion to nail this, and while it's pleasing that he does, it's unexceptional.

However, it's at this point I need to interject, because we need to talk about the other side of reggae music that tends to be overlooked in most superficial listenings, and that's the politics. Most people tend to forget that behind all of the ganja smoke and the pseudo-spiritual hippie ideals also were some pretty interesting politics and spirituality - and thus it was a huge and very pleasant surprise to see Snoop Lion dive headlong into this material. His opening track 'Rebel Way' immediately sets the tone with a soliloquy where he talks about how many musicians die before their time and are only loved afterwards - and since Snoop Lion wants to be loved today, he has to start sharing that love, a damn near unprecedented display of vulnerability that you would never expected from Snoop Doggy Dogg fifteen years ago. But what I like about such words is that it makes the unspoken implication that if that love had been shared between musicians in his former medium instead of bullets, more of them would be alive.

It's this maturity and seriousness that sets the tone of the best of Reincarnated's songs, because Snoop Lion nails the sharp political/spiritual elements with the flow and insight of a seasoned veteran. But what's more shocking - and much more satisfying - is the way he takes direct aim at his former genre, targeting gangsta rap and the modern state of hip-hop with a vehemence belied by his quiet storm delivery. Coming back to the guest stars, Snoop Lion makes the smart decision and grabs Drake (otherwise known as the wussiest rapper working today) to deliver a verse on his anti-violence screed 'No Guns Aloud'. And what's all the more shocking is that Drake actually delivers one of his sharpest verses in a long time, proving that if you give Drake something interesting to actually talk about besides himself, he's a capable rapper. 

And yet Snoop Lion isn't just targeting his gangsta past (once again reinforcing the reincarnation theme of the album in a great way), but also current issues. He takes shots at global warming in 'Smoke The Weed' (yeah, it's a bit preachy to crowbar the message in, but Snoop Lion's argument that weed might not last or grow properly if the climate changes is an interesting case), and in 'Tired Of Runnin', he tackles profiling and marijuana legalization with a surprisingly intelligent perspective. The interesting thing is that is actually a cover of an old Akon song from 2006, which while being one of the other artist's smarter compositions, Akon's delivery didn't quite sell me on it (that's mostly because Akon is completely unconvincing as a put-upon, socially conscious rapper). Snoop Lion takes the sharp lyrics and infuses them with genuine weariness and melancholy tempered by reggae politics, which blows Akon's reedy performance out of the water.

But the best song on the album, without a doubt, is 'Ashtrays and Heartbreaks', featuring Miley Cyrus - not only because it's the best example of a reggae/hip-hop fusion and modernization for the mainstream, but because the songwriting is better than anything Snoop Lion has written in years under any alias. Surprisingly simple on the surface, 'Ashtrays And Heartbreaks' works because every element compliments the hazy, dusty melancholy atmosphere, from Snoop Lion's grief-stricken lyrics of loss (heavily inspired by the passing of Nate Dogg) to Miley's desperate attempts to cope with her own loss. They both know that they have to let go of the spirits of those they left behind, but until then, they'll smoke and drink and try to mask their pain. What's interesting here is that even though Snoop Lion could have done this song all on his own, Miley actually manages to fit the song amazingly well, nailing the emotion and her typically unimpressive voice sounding ragged and burnt-out. It's eons better than Miley's collaboration with, and while both songs prove that she's surprisingly game for whatever she's given, throwing herself into each song with surprising aplomb, it's clear she fits this sort of track much better than's EDM nonsense.

Snoop Lion's Reincarnated is very much a 'rebirth' album, an place where the man who once was Snoop Dogg can become Snoop Lion and redefine himself. And the strange thing is that while Snoop Lion seems to have already completed that transition, most of the other elements of the album haven't quite gotten there yet. I could almost imagine Snoop Lion in the studio, completely embracing Rastafarianism and trying to communicate his ideas to Diplo (executive producer and the man behind Usher's magnificent song 'Climax'), and yet nobody else completely on the same page, particularly considering Snoop Lion's vision of reggae is much more complete than I can imagine the average hip-hop personality would understand. And indeed, whenever the instrumentation matches the politically-charged melancholy and spiritualism of Snoop Lion's delivery, the songs work beautifully. But the frustrating part of this album is that too many people haven't quite clued into this vision, which is less dancehall or hip-hop and more the reggae of the early 70s pushed by Bob Marley. And on that note, I'm guessing most people weren't as aware of the seriousness Snoop Lion would take with his performance, or how hard he would try to actually say something of substance. 

And really, I'm not surprised by that - I mean, I was on the internet when Snoop Dogg announced his name and genre shift, nobody really took it seriously. But it definitely appears Snoop Lion took it seriously, and because he did, he's easily the best part of Reincarnated. And hell, it sure looks like Drake and Miley Cyrus got the message too - but the problem is that not everyone got that message, with some people thinking Snoop Lion was just looking to create a reggae-themed hip-hop track and others thinking he wanted to make a mainstream dancehall album, neither of which really represent what Snoop Lion was looking to make. And while there are points when everything does manage to come together, the singularity of vision isn't quite here, which unfortunately means Reincarnated is only a really good album, and not quite a game changer. 

That said, I still highly recommend Reincarnated, if only because you're not going to hear anything else like it this year and it would be absolutely amazing to see this album take off and become a smash hit, which would likely give Snoop Lion the creative freedom he needs to make more albums his way. Yeah, it doesn't entirely work and it's not perfect, but it shows artistic vision, direction, and intelligence from a rapper who could have coasted by on nothing but sheer coolness and swagger - and in this industry, you can't imagine how rare that is.

So congratulations, Snoop Lion: you took a big risk with your artistic direction, and not only did it pay off, you got to make political statements over killer modernized reggae rhythms. 

In other words, somehow, you made yourself even cooler, and I wouldn't take that away for a minute.

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