Snoop Dogg: Back to the roots

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Snoop Dogg won't apologize for his gangsta ways.

In hip-hop, it’s not where you’re at that matters, but where you’re from. “I’m a East Side Long Beach Crip; I can’t help that,” Snoop Dogg recently told Allhiphop.com, amidst mounting criticism of the concept for his eighth album, Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, which flaunts his affiliation with the Los Angeles street gang. “I was put on in 1982. That’s what I do. But at the same time, there’s such a thing as redemption.”

It was a telling statement from a rapper who found himself in the eye of a storm of negative press for much of last year. In April 2006, the 35-year-old was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London after members of his entourage were turned away from a first-class lounge and went on to vandalize a duty-free shop. In September, he was detained at an Orange County, California, airport when a collapsible police baton was found in his luggage, and he was later arrested. In October, Snoop got booked for gun and marijuana charges at a Burbank, California, airport. Then, in November, he was arrested after performing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, again for drug and weapons possession.

When the Georgia Straight reaches Snoop Dogg at an L.A. studio where he’s recording with hip-hop artists War Zone, Western Union, and Kurupt, the soft-spoken rapper declines to comment on his legal situation. Instead, he focuses on the positive aspects of his life, and in particular on reaching a new level with his craft. “I am trying to represent me, and what I’m going through, and where I’m at,” he says of Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. “I wanted to just go back [to my roots] and have fun and make records that feel good, and were more in tune with the people.

“I’m at peace right now,” he adds. “I feel good about everything.”

It’s hard to see how that could be the case.

As many are aware, the Doggfather—who’s headed to Vancouver to headline a show at the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (January 13)—is no stranger to trouble. He’s had run-ins with the criminal-justice system throughout much of his career. In spite of this, the West Coast rapper has managed to parlay his considerable talent and charisma into successful recording and acting careers, as well as securing a number of lucrative endorsement deals. In recent years, Snoop has artfully engineered a shift in his image from the menacing gangster of Death Row Records days—a man who stood trial (and was acquitted) for murder and was lambasted for misogyny by U.S. antirap crusader C. Delores Tucker during a campaign that resulted in congressional hearings—to a lovable cartoon character not unlike the Huggy Bear role he played in the big-budget 2004 flick Starsky & Hutch.

So far, Snoop has managed to juggle the demands of Hollywood and corporate America with the expectations of the streets that crowned him rap royalty back in the early ’90s. But the latest string of arrests threatens to upset that delicate balancing act. The recent charges test mainstream America’s tenuous embrace of gangsta rap.

“There’s a certain line that you need to know when to cross and when not to,” Snoop offers in a moment of candour. “You need to know when not to bring that street mentality to the business.” Where is that line? “It’s hard sometimes to describe it. A lot of times our entourage puts us in situations where we’ve got to cross that line, but for the most part, artists should never have to cross that line. They should just focus on making music and getting what they deserve as an artist.”

The problem isn’t that Snoop has broken the law and gotten caught. Americans, after all, are fiends for such spectacles. With startling regularity, the country’s top icons stumble and fall from grace. Perhaps they’re discovered getting down with an intern, like former president Bill Clinton. Or maybe they’re exposed doing shady stock deals, like Martha Stewart. The public is alternately outraged and titillated by such revelations. Dragged into the spotlight, the perpetrator tearfully confesses and seeks forgiveness—preferably from God and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The sins are atoned for and the hero is reborn, ready to hunt down more success, more money, and more attention. It’s a drama tailored to encompass the extremes of American culture, to somehow reconcile the country’s religious righteousness with its lust for fame, violence, sex, and wealth. And millions are caught in its powerful grip.

Except rap artists, that is. Rappers scorn this ritual, which has nothing to do with the ’hoods they come from, where folks struggle with grinding poverty and suffer from gang violence, rampant drug addiction, and police harassment. For those coming up in urban war zones across the United States, desperately trying to make something out of nothing, the code of conduct is often dictated by the Corner—not the pulpit or the courts or the newspapers. For rappers to apologize would be a betrayal of their own sense of justice, as they often feel persecuted by police. (The fact that several U.S. cities now have special task forces dedicated to the surveillance of hip-hop artists does nothing to ease such suspicions.) It would also be a bad business move—in many cases, rappers’ livelihoods are staked on the criminal mystique that white suburban rap fans require for their thug fetishism.

“We’re always under the microscope,” Snoop says. “Everything that we do is analyzed.”

So, when hip-hop stars catch cases, they don’t get all choked up and go on talk shows with a public apology. They get defiant. But behind the scenes, they often set about carving out their own form of redemption.

This is what Snoop Dogg seems to be in the process of doing. The struggle is evident throughout Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, which proves to be one of the most poignant outings of Snoop’s 15-year career. Musically, the project is a triumphant return to Snoop’s Cali-funk, gangsta-rap roots. Fittingly, Dr. Dre handles much of the production. The beats are slick and infectious, ideal for blasting in a convertible Cadillac. For his part, Snoop’s lyrics are straight fire, particularly on “Think About It”. The rapper says he was in a nostalgic state of mind when he was recording the track. “I was back 1981, 1982, when I first started rapping,” he recounts. “Just being really lyrical and not really tripping up on making a song with singing or a hook. I was just trying to rap and flow what was on my mind.”

And what’s on his mind is the most engaging part of the project. Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is shot through with a tension that’s equal parts youth and maturity, aggression and healing.

The conflict jumps off right away in the charged lead single, “Vato”, a collaboration between Snoop and B-Real from Cypress Hill. The track is a classic gangster record: the narrative details a street scenario in which Snoop is forced to defend himself against a hotheaded young gun who tries to snatch his chain. “Some things, sons, they just won’t change,” he raps. “Fools don’t respect nothing but the gangbang.” The video, on the other hand, constitutes a moving call for black/brown unity.

“It was something that me and B-Real always wanted to do, as far as representing the Latinos and blacks out here in Southern California, ’cause there’s a lot of negativity and violence going on between us,” Snoop explains, choosing to emphasize the positive premise of the song. “We tried to find a way to bring both of those worlds together, where we could be peaceful about it. And music is the best way to do that.”

Elsewhere on the disc, Snoop and Compton rapper the Game—a member of the Bloods—team up to quell tensions between rival gangs on “Gangbangn 101”. The Long Beach native includes a track that shouts out to the more than 2,000 youth involved in the inner-city football league he founded. “Beat Up on Yo Pads” reminds his charges that they can have a different life if they strive toward it, and that Coach Snoop loves them.

“It’s been beautiful,” Snoop says of his coaching. “I love the experience of getting personal with these kids and giving them another avenue other than what they are accustomed to seeing—gang violence, drugs, peer pressure. It gives them another way of life, a new way of thinking, some hope. Coaching is the greatest thing in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world.”

The league promotes academic achievement as well as athletics. In fact, in a recent television special about his work, Snoop presented one of his players with a $20,000 cheque for college. “I know my little homey wants to go to college so bad, and I know his mom is a single parent,” he explains. “It’s just so hard to keep somebody inspired when they know what they up against. I feel like he’s going to continue to push even harder now that he knows the money’s there for him to at least enroll in the college, and his ability will get the rest of it done.”

It’s on the final tracks of the album that this sense of growth finds its ultimate expression. The introspective “Imagine” attempts to come to terms with the sorrow of the past and deliver some hope for the future. “Imagine rap wasn’t out yet,” Snoop spits. “Imagine all this pain with no outlet/Imagine how many lives would be ruined if we didn’t have hip-hop/Imagine what we’d all be doing.” It’s no surprise that the joint is followed by a song, “Conversations”, in which Snoop seeks solace in something greater than himself. It may not be the kind of tearful, melodramatic gesture that will satisfy the American public. And it certainly doesn’t come without a boatload of contradictions. But it’s a move toward some sort of redemption nonetheless.

Snoop Dogg plays the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (January 13).