Who is Snoop Lion?
It’s a question we’ve all lost plenty of sleep over. When the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg announced his name-change last summer, it seemed that a vital organ of hip-hop history had been ripped out and tossed.
But is this really the case? With his reggae album out April 23, and the Reincarnated documentary premiering at SXSW this week, Snoop is primed to be on the pop culture map in a big way. And it’s become clear that, throughout his career, "tha Doggfather" has displayed a Prince-like ability to move in and out of artistic identities without losing the core essence that’s made him a superstar.
"Deep Cover" was the first time most listeners heard Snoop Doggy Dogg rap. His trademark drawl and laid back delivery made him instantly recognizable in a way few artists can boast of. James Brown had it. Michael Jackson had it. It’s a quality that’s increasingly rare in an era when vocal manipulation technologies make it hard to aurally distinguish one artist from the next.
Snoop appeared next on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. His verses reflected a heightened, X-rated fantasy version of the So-Cal 'hood lifestyle he group up around: sex, house parties, gangbanging, "smoking Indo," and "sipping on gin and juice." Gangsta rap of the late 1980s made this lyrical content par for the course, and Snoop carried the mantle well.
But his classic 1993 album, Doggystyle, made him a household name. It debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and spawned numerous hit singles. When Snoop was acquitted of murder in 1996 and released Tha Doggfather the next year, his public image as a gangster and hardened street veteran was solidified.
Things started to change a bit thereafter. Snoop adopted a more laid-back image, reveling in a blaxploitation-informed pimp lifestyle highlighted by increasingly flamboyant outfits and slightly subdued lyrical content. But make no mistake: Snoop didn’t distance himself too far from his rowdy past. If his cover and title for Tha Last Meal are any indication, Snoop’s updated image did not negate the street credibility he’d accumulated. If anything, it added another layer to an already storied artistic life.
In R&G: Rhythm and Gangsta, Snoop took glittering rhythm and blues as a primary influence. By now he’d long shed the "Doggy" part of his name and was known simply as "Snoop Dogg." With the gangster, pimp, and pop personas firmly under his belt, Snoop has been able to draw on all three in his most recent artistic forays.
Yet when the Long Beach native travelled to Jamaica and had a “spiritual awakening” last summer, it seemed that the Dogg we’d come to know and love had been lost. Snoop doing a reggae album? It seemed odd, even for him (on top of the fact that he doesn’t have the loveliest singing voice).
"I have always said I was Bob Marley reincarnated," Snoop Lion said recently. And if you think about it, true or false, it’s not surprising that he’d say this. He’s already cast doubt over whether he’ll release another reggae album, providing further evidence that the "Lion" persona is just another step in his ongoing artistic evolution.
What will come next? Who knows, but we should all feel lucky to be part of the ride.