Snoop Dogg had come to Burbank to let loose the lion.
Engulfed by a haze of marijuana smoke thick as London fog in a hotel suite high above the so-called Media Capital of the World, the gangsta rap superstar surrendered himself to a hairdresser's strenuous manipulations as she twisted and caressed his skinny braids into cheroot-shaped dreadlocks. The Doggfather's coiffure needed to be Rastafari-real, after all, for his television debut as the new Snoop. One Love Snoop. Reggae Snoop.
On TBS' late-night talk show "Conan" last Monday, the MC introduced himself to America's viewing public as Snoop Lion — a spinoff persona that the rapper has been building since last summer, when he held a New York news conference to announce his latest Bowie-like reinvention. On the show, he sang a duet with his teenage daughter, Cori B, a downtempo cri de coeur called "No Guns Allowed" that would have been inconceivable in earlier Dogg days.
"I had got to a point in my career where I had done it all," the performer, 41, explained between drags in the hotel suite on a blunt. "I had reached the pinnacle of rap. It was too easy. I was looking for a new challenge. I needed to speak to the people but not from a hip-hop voice — from a different angle."
Given Snoop's other recent stabs at musical rebranding, his latest iteration may strike some as little more than a countervailing persona served up via a new film and a new album. He insists it isn't an act.
"Reincarnated," a travelogue documentary that reached theaters March 15, chronicles the artist's 2012 journey to Jamaica. Shuttling from shantytown to Nyabinghi temple by minivan and inhaling industrial quantities of ganja, the Boss Dogg is shown immersing himself in reggae culture and being inculcated into the Rastafarian religion — he's instructed to ditch the "Dogg" alias in favor of the more righteous Snoop Lion by none other than reggae legend Bunny Wailer. The film, which premiered at September's Toronto International Film Festival, also captures Snoop recording an all-reggae, non-hip-hop album — his first — also titled "Reincarnated," due out on RCA Records April 23.
If his journey of self-discovery and musical rebirth is authentic, it could have far-reaching implications for one of gangsta rap's keystone figures, a hard-core stalwart (real name: Calvin Broadus) whose "Murder Was the Case" fatalism and 1996 acquittal on murder charges helped cement his street bona fides while paving the way for Snoop to become one of the most sought-out performers in hip-hop history. Some who spent time with the artist in Jamaica — including Wailer — have doubts about his transformation.
But change has clearly been stirring in Snoop for several years, as evidenced by the rapper's choice to leave his "1-8-7 on an undercover cop" lyrical milieu behind to speak out in support of stricter gun control laws and refocus himself as a kind of prodigal family man. In 2008, he renewed vows with his estranged wife Shante Broadus, the mother of his three children, and his Snoop Youth Football League enrolls hundreds of underprivileged kids every year. Call it the gangsta rapper's midlife crisis.
"I been in this game for over 20 years. A lot of opportunities won't come my way because there's always somebody else young and fresh and fly," Snoop said, his five-man entourage in the suite nodding in agreement. "This is a young man's game. Any time you been here, people get tired of you. You gotta work twice as hard.
"I was being the bad guy and whatnot, then I just started taking the right steps. If I'm going to change as a person, the music should reflect that."
Hip-hop and beyond
A few elder rap statesmen such as Ice Cube and Jay-Z have successfully reinvented themselves as diversified businessmen in addition to being recording stars, but most hip-hoppers older than 40 face a limited menu of none-too-palatable options, including cultural oblivion (MC Hammer), and incarceration (DMX, Ja Rule). ). And then there is Snoop.
After his 1992 discovery by gangsta rap lodestar Dr. Dre, the "slim with the tilted grin" rapper from Long Beach bum-rushed the mainstream. His 1993 debut album, "Doggystyle," went multiplatinum and Snoop lodged himself in the pop consciousness as an MC-pitchman-actor-movie-producer and new media mogul beloved by hipsters, pre-teens and O.G.'s alike. (The Doggfather has also garnered his share of detractors, with Bill O'Reilly calling for the MC's deportation from America, Spike Lee accusing Snoop of perpetuating negative black stereotypes, and no less than Posh Spice brushing the rapper off as "Mr. Snoopy.")
In recent years, Snoop has rung the opening bell to the New York Stock Exchange, provided a guest verse on Katy Perry's smash single "California Gurls," produced and costarred in the DVD stoner hit "Mac & Devin Go to High School" (under his Snoopadelic Films banner) and partnered with the mobile gaming company Zynga to blow up an armored truck in the Nevada desert.
Although his last several albums were met with declining sales, the former East Side Rollin' 20s Crip ranked No. 14 on Forbes magazine's list of Hip-hop Cash Kings last year. He delivered the second most popular Ask Me Anything session ever recorded on Reddit (President Obama holds the one-day record) and in 2012 co-headlined one of the most raucous performances ever witnessed at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival with Dr. Dre and a digital projection of Tupac Shakur.
"That's the genius of Snoop," said Ted Chung, the performer's manager of 14 years. "He's one of the few people who can take that artistry and deliver it in a variety of different mediums — hosting a show, being on a song, being in a movie, on the radio, online — in a way that's still totally unique to him."
Nonetheless, sensing diminishing returns in hip-hop, around 2011 the performer decided to branch out into new musical terrain. He became passionate about jazz and recorded a pair of as-yet-unreleased songs with swing and bop trumpeter Clark Terry in Arkansas. Snoop also toyed with recording symphonic music with the help of his pal "Mission: Impossible" composer Lalo Schifrin. On a lark, the rapper proposed two other nonrap ideas: traveling to Brazil in 2014 to watch the World Cup soccer tournament with a film crew in tow, and cutting an album in Jamaica.
Snoop had become a fan of Vice Media — the Brooklyn-based media conglomerate that boasts a devoted hipster following — after catching "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," an edgy war zone rockumentary the company produced. Chung met with Vice executives to discuss having them shoot a 20-minute, Web-only short documenting Snoop's Jamaican jaunt.