This article was also posted on Passion of the Weiss
You’re sitting in the passenger seat of a car. It’s a hot, muggy Los Angeles afternoon and you’re with your friend in his low-riding convertible, cruising down the boulevard as the wind gently pushes upon your jehri curl. The soundtrack for your excursion consists of melodic synthesizers, a deep bass, slow grooves, and the occasional background female vocals. You friend passes you a smoldering joint as you both sit in silence, listening to rhymes about fornication and felonies ooze through air, delivered in a lazy drawl where the words seemingly blend together in a syrupy flow. This is what listening to Doggystyle should feel like. Unfortunately, it’s not an experience that’s easy to mimic, nor is it a time frame that one can revisit.
That’s why, upon having to retrospectively review Doggystyle, and album that is considered a classic in the hip-hop cannon and one that I missed out on in my early years, I was faced with a horrible problem: I didn’t like it. It’s not that I didn’t like the lyrics, or the beats, or the songs as a whole, it’s just that I couldn’t consider it great. For me to consider an album great it needs to be thematically timeless, sonically irreplicable, and act as a solid touch-point for the artist’s future career. If I were to listen to this album in a vacuum, I would adore it. However, knowing what happens to artist, the producer, and the genre itself takes too much away from the project for me to be able to enjoy it in 2013.
Thematically, the album acts as a blueprint for what gangsta rap should sound like. It’s angry, threatening, direct, scary, and rooted in reality. Doggystyle was released just one year after the Rodney King Riots in May of 1992, a race riot that turned LA into a warzone for days and would go on to paint that area as violent and instable in the years to come. Those events undoubtedly painted Snoop’s worldview and caused him to be mindful of what he decided to put on wax as well. This was not the time for another political group like Public Enemy to emerge but it was also not the time for a Flava Flav-clone to try to break into the mainstream. The rapping in Doggystyle starts off celebratory with the G Funk Intro & Gin and Juice; before shifting to serious in the middle of the album with Murder Was The Case, Serial Killa and Who Am I; and then staying fairly serious with a healthy pinch of bravado for the remainder of the album with songs like Gz and Hustlas, and Pump Pump. With this type of output, Snoopy was giving the public exactly what they needed at the time: something jubilant but done with a sneer.
Sonically, Dr. Dre’s production skills are on full display on Doggystyle. The way that Snoop’s lackadaisical flow snaps perfectly into Dre’s drums is special, and no song seems to overstay its welcome when the entire project is broken up with interludes and skits that feature distinguishable characters and are comical without attempting to be. This album was the penultimate example of g-funk, second only to The Chronic in the way that it mixes the high-pitched synthesizers with the booming drums to give you a distinctly West Coast feel.
All of the videos released for Doggystyle (What’s My Name, Gin N’ Juice, It’s a Doggy Dogg World) are highly cinematic, almost all of them involving characters with defined personalities and etched-out roles. They feature parents, pimps and animorphing canines. With these, Snoop both took over MTV‘s timeslots while redefining the way that music videos should be shot and shining a light on the community that he grew up in. None of the videos from Doggystyle were explicitly violent, but they also never gave you the impression that they were made from a safe place.
So with all of the above being said, why do I still not like this album? The answer comes down to change.
Both the genre and the artist have changed so much since the debut of Doggystyle. Take the artists representing rap currently and stack them up against what Snoop was doing. Freddie Gibbs and Wiz Khalifa may not be better rappers than Snoop, but both rhyme almost exclusively about themes that Snoop rapped about concurrently (being a gangster and smoking weed). Neither Freddie nor Wiz will ever be on Snoop’s level, but to listeners who want to only hear about smoking weed and not about killing people (or vice versa), they now have a rapper that speaks specifically to that niche. So while Snoop is most definitely a trail-blazer, you had to be around to see that trail being made in order to properly appreciate it.
It’s like when people say that Rakim is the greatest rapper ever because he revolutionized the way that MCs flow, even though there have been a metric ton of rappers who have come afterwards and fine-tuned that approach. Just because Henry Ford invented the automobile doesn’t mean that I’m going to acknowledge that the Model T was the finest car to ever have been put on the road.
And then there’s the issue of what Snoop himself has become. It’s hard to believe the the current Snoop is the same one that made this album. Not just because it wasn’t recorded under the moniker of Snoop Lion, but because it feel so raw and un-savy that it seems to go against everything that Snoop has done since. You would think twenty years in the game would allow your audience to know the real you, but not with Snoop. It’s impossible to tell if he’s someone who sets trends or chases them. Did his first salvo of albums allow him to achieve the perfection in art that he desired, allowing him to spend the rest of his career experimenting and doing whatever made him happy? Or is Snoop forever chasing the next big thing in music, making songs with Dr. Dre to Pharrell to will.i.am to Diplo in the hopes of being constantly accepted by the rap culture of the time?
One of the things I truly enjoyed about this album is that it came with a lot of “ah-ha” moments. The more old rap I listen to, the more I realize how few of the memorable lines in the “new” stuff are original. Jay-Z borrowed heavily from “What’s My Name” to make “Jigga My Nigga” including the line about being “slim with the tilted brim” and how he “went solo on that ass but he’s still the same”; Kendrick lifted the part about buying his “moma a benz” and his “boo boo a jag” from Murda Was The Case; even Kanye seemingly lifted the opening lines of the “Good Life” chorus from the end of the Snoop’s Bathtub. This album was clearly instrumental in the development of these rappers, as well as many others (hi Game!), which frustrates me and the fact that I can’t connect with it all the more.
The closest possible analogy I could draw is that Doggystyle made me feel the same way I felt after watching The Godfather a few years ago. The movie was good, but since I had already watched the plot unfold in the form of parodies and satires during my childhood spent watching The Simpsons and other shows that borrowed heavily from pop-culture, it didn’t feel the same. I can admire the story arc and the character development and the costumes, but I can never bring myself to time travel back to the era where that piece of art was new. I had watched so many movies that were made after, and clearly influenced by, The Godfather, that seeing the original didn’t bring the sense that I was a part of something new and exciting. Listening to Doggystyle may have been special in 1993, but it’s not a feeling that can be re-enjoyed. I’ve already listened to what has come after, and the sad fact is that detracts from being able to enjoy the album today, regardless of the trail that it blazed.