Snoop Doggy Dogg always seemed destined for success. Beginning his music career 25 years ago as the tall, lanky kid who traded verses with Dr. Dre on the track “Deep Cover,” he was immediately regarded as a superstar-in-the-making. Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus immediately lived up to expectations, turning in a star-making performance on Dre’s The Chronic (1992) and releasing a classic debut solo album with 1993’s Doggystyle. In the process, Snoop Dogg became one of the few rappers whose name has near universal recognition even outside of the realm of hip-hop. It’s safe to call Snoop a pop culture icon.
But despite a strong beginning, Snoop’s career hasn’t always lived up to his musical potential. This goes all the way back to the release of his 1996 sophomore album, The Doggfather. Created with little involvement from his mentor after the good Doctor left Death Row Records, the album was considered a let-down. Since then, he’s hopped from label to label, from No Limit to Priority to Geffen, releasing dozens of albums and mixtapes, and even a reinvention or two. Once, he gave up weed. Another time he studied Rastafarianism and renamed himself Snoop Lion.
Snoop will drop a classic single every few years that will remind the world of how great he can be, but of the fifteen solo studio albums he’s released since Doggystyle, not many have had a lot of staying power. In 2015, he released Bush, an entire album produced by Pharrell Williams, and it looked like he was on the right track. However, the very next year he released Coolaid, a bloated mess that had all the hallmarks of his sub-par efforts over the years.
Now, with Neva Left, his fifteenth solo effort, Snoop emerges refocused, attempting a return to form. Snoop might make news for his high school football coaching and his political endorsements, but the man still knows how to craft good gangsta rap. Like most rappers who attempt a “comeback,” Snoop insists that he’s never really gone anywhere. But Neva Left represents his efforts to embrace his past while still moving forward musically.
The album starts off strong with the title track, Snoop’s throwback anthem dedicated to “scaring all the white folks while staying on the right note.” Rapping over a loop of the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” (most famously lifted by the Wu-Tang Clan for their classic song, “C.R.E.A.M.”), Snoop gives the track a definitive ’90s feel, as he paints an unflinching picture of the life of a gang-banger, then pledging to “Put a 9 millimeter in your fucking face / And let you say your grace before you have a taste / of reality, set in. Yeah, this your fate.” The song harkens back to the days where gangsta rap was perceived as something dangerous and threatening by mainstream culture. Snoop continues to describe his less refined days on “Bacc in da Dayz,” intricately describing his past life causing havoc as a gang-banger on the streets of Long Beach. Buoyed by a rough groove and a sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rime,” the song is one of the album’s best tracks.
Along with hard-edged gangsta shit, Snoop has always excelled at making smooth, laid-back rider music, and he displays his talents a few times on Neva Left. “Go On” is a breezy yet funky summer anthem, which finds Snoop describing days cruising the sunny streets of Southern California, stopping occasionally to enjoy a barbecue or pool party. Perhaps showing some of the maturity that comes with age, he celebrates having time to spend with family, extolling the joys of riding in the park with his grandson. Meanwhile, “420 (Blaze It Up)” is another of Snoop’s many odes to smoking weed. The mellow, synth-driven track is produced by DJ Battlecat, who has collaborated with Snoop since the late ’90s. It also features a chilled-out verse from marijuana aficionado and prolific artist Devin the Dude, as well as Snoop’s recent rhyme partner Wiz Khalifa.
Snoop enlists quite a few friendly emcees to support him on Neva Left. Being an industry vet means you makes a lot of friends in the game, which often leads to interesting pairings. In Snoop’s case, it also often leads to him rapping with emcees who are known to take a toke or two. On the album’s first single, “Mount Kushmore,” Snoop enlists fellow weed-head OGs B-Real, Method Man, and Redman. The song is right in the wheelhouse of all four emcees, as they trade verses over a propulsive, hard-slapping track that sounds like a 2017 version of “How High” by way of the late Roger Troutman. Snoop also joins forces with the legendary KRS-One for “Let Us Begin,” with both exhibiting their ample mic skills over a noisier and hard-driving funk track again produced by Battlecat.
Neva Left has few missteps. The only outright bad song is “Trash Bags,” Snoop’s sole attempt to stay “current” on the album. The largely soul-less beat by Musik MajorX plods along, dragged further down by an auto-tuned chorus by Atlanta’s K. Camp. Snoop seems to be aiming for outright mainstream crossover appeal with this track, but the results are dull and ponderous.
A couple of inclusions aren’t really bad, but their presence on this project just seems, well, off. “Big Mouth,” a Battlecat-produced straight-ahead cover of a 33-year old Whodini song, ends up being filler. The weirdest is a remix of Snoop’s version of “The Vapors.” Snoop first covered the classic Biz Markie song back in 1996 for his second album, The Doggfather, and Battlecat remixed the song soon thereafter to give it his traditional sound, and brought in Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson and Teena Marie to sing on the chorus. The remix originally was to be included on Snoop Dogg’s Doggumentary EP, an unreleased project that was set to drop in 1997 on Death Row, only to be pulled weeks before its release due to Snoop’s growing issues with the label. Why it’s appearing 20 years later on this album is a bit mystifying. It’s possible that with all of the Battlecat-produced tracks that appear on the album, Snoop decided to finally make use of it after two decades in the vault.
“I’m Still Here,” another track handled by Battlecat, could pass as a once-vaulted song from another era of Snoop’s career. In this case, the song sounds like it may have been recorded during the Reincarnated (2013) sessions, with its dancehall feel and numerous allusions to his “Snoop Lion” alter ego. Regardless, Battlecat takes a reggae-influenced groove and filters it through a g-funk lens, with solid results. A tacked-on intro by Kendrick Lamar also seems a bit out of place, but the song as a whole still works.
Neva Left celebrates many of the previous eras of his music, with Snoop playing to his strengths and reasserting himself as a rapper who can still bang with the best of them. Overall, it feels like a true Snoop Dogg album, rather than one filled with calculated attempts to chase the new, hot trends. Rap icons with 25-year histories of making music can creatively write their own checks, and it’s nice to see that Snoop is using his cultural and musical cache to remind his audience how he’s been able to stick around so long in the first place.
Notable Tracks: “Go On” | “Mount Kushmore” | “Neva Left”