When Snoop Dogg started calling himself Snoop Lion last year, those who casually follow him (ie the entirety of the internet) collectively snickered. His embrace of Rastafarianism and journey to Jamaica — resulting in April's Reincarnated — has been widely criticized and mocked, by those in the know and by armchair cultural quarterbacks. The album got horribly middling reviews, and his critics, like everyone else, took the opportunity to belittle not just the music but his quest. “Snoop Dogg has sought solace in exotic spirituality,” wrote Spin, “not Kabbalah or Scientology, of course, but the one that lets you smoke a lot of weed.”
It's now been a month; the album sold poorly and the companion documentary also hasn't gotten much traction. Lost among all this mean-spirited snark? A) The songs on Reincarnated are really good, though of course that can be debated and B) Snoop's intentions here are really earnest, which can not.
In fact, no one who has seen the Reincarnated film can doubt that the man is trying to better himself. It follows his time in Jamaica (about a month, he says) which he spends both in the studio with producers like Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid, and walking around urban and natural settings with co-hort Daz and a bunch of guides. He's swarmed by local fans and gawkers, some of whom are not polite and want to know what the hell he's doing there.
The answer? What we're always asking our pop stars to do — to take risks, to expand.
Well, with Reincarnated he succeeded. And then everyone shit on him.
I'm not going to debate the merits of Rastafarianism — I don't know anything about it, and neither do his media critics. And yeah Reincarnated, the film, features weed-smoking in just about every frame. But he didn't need to go to Jamaica to get some damn pot. (And besides, the stuff over there looks kinda worse than California bud, to be honest; lots of sticks.)
In fact, his quest wasn't really about finding a new religion; this wasn't Muhammad Ali's pilgrimage to Mecca. As he lays out in the doc, it was mostly a fact-finding mission, to learn about musical forefathers he feels a kinship with (like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh), to get right with himself, and to make a different kind of musical project, one focused on sung, positive messages, rather than rapped, violent ones.
It was about moving away from the kind of music he's associated with — the nihilistic kind — which is what critics have been saying gangsta rappers should do since gangsta rap started. I don't happen to agree with those critics, and who knows if this persona will stick, but it's clear he's giving it an honest shot. In the film he talks about his oft-rocky-but-enduring relationship with his wife (which is unique in itself; I mean, what rapper talks about his wife?!) and his brief period as a pimp, which he says he's done with.
But mostly this project was about finding a way for Snoop to make a living without rapping about killing people. And he's a joke for this?
To go back a bit: Let's not trivialize the minor miracle that Snoop Dogg is still with us. Violence has felled many of his contemporaries, and Snoop himself has spent many years in varying amounts of physical danger. (There was a period when Suge Knight was openly threatening to get rid of him, for starters.)
Who wants to spend their life looking over their shoulders? Sure, Snoop made his career bragging about being the boldest and the brashest, but embodying that persona, decade after decade, gets old. (Snoop's now 41.) Of course he's careful, like all hard-edged rappers, to say his lyrics have traditionally reflected urban reality rather than encouraging chaos, but he clearly has some regrets about the nature of his songs. Hence his desire for a cleanse, and, since he's an artist, an album documenting this action.
We can't know if he's succeeded feeling better about himself, but the music on Reincarnated makes a strong artistic statement. This is driving, accessible roots reggae, with a polish that displays more of Rechtshaid's ear for melody than Diplo's raver-exoticism. The inspiring, relentlessly optimistic “Lighters Up” is an early single of the year contender, while “No Guns Allowed” is a sentimentality-free peace treaty that doubles as a compelling hip-hop ballad. Most of the other tracks (“Here Comes the King,” “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” etc.) do exactly what they set out to. Though admittedly “Fruit Juice” sucks.
Is Snoop a great singer? Not really, and for all the writers, beat makers, and guest performers on the album, he's as much executive producer here as anything else. But what a great project, one that works equally as a pop work, a document of a life phase from an enduring icon, and a personal mission statement.
It's fine if you don't like this music, but dismissing Snoop Lion for wanting to grow up is reactionary and cynical.