Two decades ago, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ascent from Long Beach Crip to number-one debut album with a bullet and a murder charge was the target of a Newsweek cover story that asked, damningly, “When is Rap 2 Violent?” Today, he’s known as Uncle Snoop, and his wink-wink naughtiness seems harmlessly all-American. His youth football league warrants regular coverage on ESPN, while he costars with his UCLA college football-bound son, Cordell Broadus, in the documentary Snoop & Son: A Dad’s Dream. He makes regular appearances on WWE Raw, and bro comedies like Old School and Entourage.
Perhaps the most remarkable transformation lies in Snoop Dogg’s music. For millennials, he’s the dogg buried in the sand, cornrowed head wagging about, as Katy Perry sings about “California Gurls.” Smoker icons in training like Wiz Khalifa are his “nephews.” He makes EDM bangers with David Guetta and Afrojack, and offers his imprimatur to everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Dam-Funk to K-Pop stars Girls’ Generation and Psy (the “Gangnam Style” guy). His just-released album, a full-length collaboration with Pharrell Williams titled Bush, barely has any rapping at all, just Snoop crooning blissfully about big booties and THC edibles over a light disco-funk beat.
How did Snoop grow from the man who rapped on “Deep Cover,” “It’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop,” to singing duets with Willie Nelson? Perhaps the turning point was his 2004 album and arguable highlight of his post-Death Row career, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. Or maybe a bit earlier, when he and Pharrell cavorted in Rio De Janeiro on the video clip “Beautiful.” Ever since then, his biggest moments have had a decidedly pop tone, whether it’s hanging with Wiz on “Young, Wild & Free,” or singing in auto-tune on “Sexual Seduction.”
Nowadays, he’s everyone’s favorite uncle, the young-at-heart OG who gets a little too drunk at the family barbecue, is probably too old to know the latest rap hits, and is definitely too old to be flirting with the young ladies in the backyard. Who doesn’t love that guy?
Eminem should have picked a different title for The Marshall Mathers LP2. On its 2000 predecessor, he plumbed the ugly depths of the male ID with anguished ferocity, giving voice to blasphemous dreams of criminality and murder. He created a fictional character, “Stan,” that so vividly captured how we the audience – and hip-hop fans in particular – mistake complex rap lyrics for pure autobiography that it has become shorthand for a kind of perverse idolatry. Eminem tried to repeat that performance for many years afterward, or at least live up to it, by wearing us down with increasingly hammy shock tactics. It wasn’t until he repositioned himself as a man who employs self-help jargon to prove his decency in 2010’s Recovery that he found a credible follow-up.
Nothing Was the Same marks a tide-is-high moment for Aubrey Drake Graham. As he surveys the world from the vista of his achievements, he sums up what he once called “The Ride,” and what he calls on opener “Tuscan Leather” as “my mission to shift the culture.”
But there are others nipping at his ability to define the contours of mainstream rap, chiefly Kendrick Lamar, and to a lesser extent Future, Macklemore and a few others. Perhaps it’s why Drake has no major guests on Nothing Was the Same, save for a growling Birdman adlib on “Language,” and a pair of imperious Jay-Z verses on “Pound Cake.” He wants vindication as a hip-hop god by his own merit.
Lil Wayne could have made a much worse album than Tha Carter IV. Certainly, he seemed primed for a disaster. 2010’s widely derided Rebirth was a sophomoric pop-punk experiment. Its follow-up, the I Am Not A Human Being EP, marked a retreat to his modus operandi as a Dirty South rhyme animal, but it sounded rote and joyless, and he seemed distracted by a pending prison stint for weapons possession (which he completed early this year). After those relative failures – both went gold on Lil Wayne’s brand name and his unquenchable base of fans – Tha Carter IV seems less likely to draw the same excitement and interest as 2008’s Tha Carter III. And while teaser singles such as “John,” “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “How to Love” and “She Will” were decent, none of them equaled the classic minimalist attack of Volume III’s “A Milli” or the inexplicably popular pillow-hump ballad “Lollipop.”
Nicki Minaj is a self-described Harajuku girl with a potty mouth and a dementedly theatrical fashion sense to match. Much like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha, Nicki Minaj is a brand in constant flux, re-positioning herself from video to public appearance to newly-released digital single. The series of teaser tracks for Pink Friday: Roman’s Reloaded brought a variety of fresh guises, including usurper of Lil Kim’s rap queen throne on “Stupid Hoe,” and the nightclub siren of “Starships.” (One early single, “Roman in Moscow,” didn’t make the final cut.) Helpfully, she cleaves Roman’s Reloaded into two distinct halves. Lovers of her face-melting rhymes get “HOV Lane” (as in Jay-Z a.k.a. “Jay Hova”) and ciphers with Rick Ross, Cam’Ron, and Nas. Fans who adore her radio confections get clubby house tracks like “Starships” made by Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” producer RedOne.
However, this was supposed to be an hour completely devoted to Nicki’s manic id, Roman Zolanski, the one who upstaged Kanye West on “Monster,” swiped credit for Big Sean’s hit “Dance (A$$),” and the self-described “lunatic” who battled with Eminem on “Roman’s Revenge.” Roman is essentially a stand-in for Nicki the MC, but Nicki the MC doesn’t pay her bills, at least when it comes to her solo success. Her biggest hits, like “Super Bass” and “Moment for Life,” featured her singing front and center, and even though she rapped on both songs, it’s the flat voice and Trinidadian lilt that we remember. So Roman the rap lunatic takes a backseat on Roman Reloaded, while Nicki the multi-platform pop sensation gets a majority of face time.