Snoop Lion: Old Dogg, new tricks from the world's most recognisable gangsta rapper

Endless self-reinvention has sustained one of the longest careers in rap. But has he adopted one persona too many?

What's my mutherf***in' name?" drawled Snoop Doggy Dogg in the debut single
from his debut album Doggystyle in 1993. The question is as pertinent as ever.
Having previously truncated his moniker to Snoop Dogg, the world's most
recognisable gangsta rapper upgraded to Snoop Lion to reflect his surprising
conversion to the ideology of Rastafarianism. But he kept the Snoop bit, derived
from his childhood resemblance to the dog Snoopy in the cartoon strip
Peanuts.

Snoop Doggy Dogg. Scooby Dooby Doo. There has always been an element of caricature to his profile, even when he was associated with the notorious Death Row records. The covers to his early releases were illustrated by canine cartoon images drawn by the artist Joe Cool. This childishness, together with the smoothness of Snoop's verbal delivery, helped to soften the aggression of his thuggish lyrics and created a global superstar.

This week he releases his first reggae album, Reincarnated, to reflect his Rasta transformation. "I was at the forefront of the most violent time in hip-hop. I was young. I was fly. I was pretty. I was flamboyant. I was the greatest of all time," he says, evoking the bravura of America's greatest ever sportsman and another religious convert. "But I'm reckless at times and that's what forced me to find a new path and I chose to be peaceful." The words are taken from a new documentary – mostly filmed in Jamaica and also called Reincarnated. Made by the youth publisher Vice, it was launched at the Toronto Film Festival. Snoop's conversion is having a multimedia launch.

At the age of 41, this married father of three children is apparently ready to leave his mack daddy days behind and embrace a new philosophy. So is this Snoop's coming of age? Can we take him seriously? For Rastafarianism is a serious practice, rooted in Bible study, meditation and a strict diet. "Smoking weed and loving Bob Marley and reggae music is not what defines the Rastafari indigenous culture," Snoop was recently warned by the Ethio-Africa Diaspora Union Millennium Council in an angry letter apparently prompted by the former pimp's loose language in recent interviews promoting his new record.

More damagingly for someone who is trying to begin a fresh career as a reggae artist, Bunny Wailer – the genre's greatest living icon and a practising Rasta – has denounced the American as an imposter, accusing him of "outright fraudulent use of Rastafari community's personalities and symbolism".

The morals of hip-hop are often confused, but "keeping it real" is a requisite trait. "I've always been me. I've never faked the funk," Snoop protested recently. He evolved into Snoop Lion following a visit to a temple of the Rastafarian Nyahbinghi Order in Jamaica.

Snoop's given name was hardly lacking in resonance. Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jnr grew up in Long Beach, California, in a neighbourhood infested with the Crip gangsters whom he would later reference in his music. "With so much drama in the LBC, it's kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double G," as he recalled in one of his most infectious rhymes in the hit "Gin and Juice". He coveted the gangster lifestyle and joined the Rollin' 20s Crips in his teens, though he also formed a group, 213, with friends Nate Dogg and Warren G, with whom he would later define a genre of rap – G-Funk.

The architect of that movement was the Los Angeles producer and rapper Dr Dre, who introduced Snoop to the world in 1992 when he voiced the theme tune to the film Deep Cover, a coast-to-coast hit tune. The murder of a police officer was his theme: "And it's 1-8-7 on an undercover cop …"

The first words you would use to describe his vocal style are laid-back. There is tonal warmth that somehow conjures California sunshine. For new listeners it was something different to the tension in the music of New York rappers. Like a malt whisky or high-grade marijuana (a better analogy for an inveterate weed smoker like Snoop), it was strong content but deliciously smooth.

Dre's funk-fused beats were integral to this effect. After the pair's phenomenally successful collaborations on Dre's The Chronic and Snoop's Doggystyle, LA became the new epicentre of hip-hop and gangsta rap's two biggest icons were international celebrities.

Snoop is not renowned as a wordsmith, though lyric writing is a key attribute in a rapper. The quality of his output between his debut album and Reincarnated is variable. He has struggled to convince some fans that he can work independently of Dre. (His work on the 2001 Dre anthem "Still D.R.E." was another career highlight.) But he is admired and liked by his peers where jealousies can have deadly consequences. "You might not realise how extensive and hot Snoop's body of work is until you go to a concert and start hearing all of those hits back to back," said the rapper Kool Moe Dee of Snoop's live performances.

In what is often a short-lived trade, Snoop has enjoyed remarkable longevity. He has achieved this through the sheer force of his persona. Twenty years after he rose to prominence, Snoop could walk into almost any large gathering on the planet and electrify the room. He is tall and – despite his constant toking – his eyes sparkle with a sense of fun. He is possessed of effortless charisma. People love him.

Maintaining this popularity has been a precarious process. In 1996, he found himself in the dock charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder. He was cleared but has said since that he was expecting to be convicted. The episode was damaging to his brand – perhaps he wasn't an A-list party guest after all. "A lot of people were scared to meet me," he admitted. The idea that he never entirely gave up his criminal connections has no doubt helped to sell records but it is a thin line to tread. "To pimp a bitch is a craft," he recently told a writer from The Guardian, defending an activity he pursued even after becoming wealthy. "You couldn't pimp a bitch if I put you in a room with a hundred hos." When the film version of Starsky & Hutch was made in 2004, Snoop was the obvious choice to play Huggy Bear, America's favourite TV pimp. But despite numerous film cameos he does not have the serious acting talents of rappers such as Ice Cube and Mos Def.

He has tried to soften before. After the rap feud which claimed his friend Tupac Shakur in 1996, a shocked Snoop said, "Who wants to be living that life where we gotta be looking over our shoulders?" But Andy Capper, who directed the film Reincarnated, says his subject "has a genuine desire to make new music that has a positive message, removed from the gangbanging lyrics that made him famous".

If Snoop is tired of rap, then reggae might seem a natural progression in maintaining his musical vitality, especially given that it has always celebrated eccentricity and the creative qualities of cannabis. But fans might not appreciate that Snoop's new album is named for the preposterous – if not heretical – notion that he is Bob Marley reborn. "We were searching for true reggae music," he says of his latest endeavours.

In truth, despite the production skills of Diplo, Reincarnated is a cod reggae album that even features a guest appearance from Miley Cyrus. Rap has its origins in reggae but rather than try to adopt his obvious skills to toasting, the Californian chooses to sing – in a naff Jamaican accent. There is none of the thunder of Jamaican Rastafarian artists, and one promotional single, "La, La, La", would not be out of place as entertainment at a seven-year-old's birthday party. But then neither would that lovable ex-gangster Snoop, no matter what animal he turned up as.

A Life In Brief

Born: Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jnr, 20 October 1971, Long Beach, California, US.

Family: Second of three sons of Beverly, a head chef, and Vernall Varnado, a Vietnam veteran and postman. He is married to childhood sweetheart Shante Taylor, with whom he has three children.

Education: Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Shortly after graduating, he was in and out of prison for the next three years.

Career: Discovered by Dr Dre and signed to Death Row in 1992. After rapping on Dre’s debut album The Chronic, his 1993 debut Doggystyle was an immediate hit. He had his first No 1 single with “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004. Renamed Snoop Lion in 2012 after becoming a Rastafarian and releasing reggae-influenced album Reincarnated. Appeared in 15 films, including Starsky and Hutch.

He says: “I used to answer hate with hate. Like if you hate me, I hate you more. Now I answer love with love”.

They say: “One of the smoothest, funkiest flow-ers in the game.” Kool Moe Dee, MC

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