The reincarnation of Snoop Dogg

In a new documentary, the legendary rapper goes to Jamaica, embraces Rastafarianism and puts away his past. Or does he?

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The occasional name change is far from uncommon in the hip-hop world. Any list of the greats abound with footnoted AKAs, whether it’s Puff Daddy’s minimalist evolution into P Diddy, and now simply Diddy, or Wu Tang luminary Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s smidge-more drastic metamorphosis into Big Baby Jesus in his later, drug-addled years. All the same, G-funk legend Snoop Dogg’s (née Snoop Doggy Dogg) recent moniker switch has had many a dumbfounded fan spitting out their gin and juice.

Directed by Andy Capper, global editor of Vice and in-house camera jockey for its emerging film company, Reincarnated documents Snoop’s transformation from hip-hop superstar to reggae upstart; from gangbanging thug to peace-loving Rasta; from Snoop Dogg to Snoop Lion.

Part smoke-along weed movie, part overgrown behind-the-music Vevo exclusive, we follow the fortysomething’s recent travels to Jamaica. He heads out hoping to soak-up the culture and cut an album enthused with the guttural punch of the Wailers and the effortless grooves of Gregory Isaacs, but after meeting the people, trekking through the mountains and partaking in the local ‘produce’, Snoop has an epiphany and embraces a new spiritual path.

Soon enough, he’s exclaiming ‘Jah, Rastafari!’, donning green, red and yellow string vests and proclaiming himself the reincarnation of Bob Marley. But as ludicrous as it sounds, there’s something more to this film then a mid-life crisis, a weed-induced delirium or – as most critics have dubbed it – a cynical marketing ploy, pillaging the culture to rake in some more Babylonian dollars. Something, dare I say it, inspiring.

It all begins with a pivotal and devastating time in the rapper’s life – the death of his childhood friend and former 213 bandmate, Nate Dogg, in 2011, due to complications following a stroke. In some of the most candid interviews he’s ever given, Snoop details their rise to prominence in the mean streets of early-90s Los Angeles, both eventually ditching the drug dealing and gang colours when Death Row Records came calling.

But the lifestyle he left behind continued to cast a long shadow, even as he left Long Beach for the Hollywood Hills. He narrowly avoided being sent down on a murder charge in 1996 and the Mafioso stylings of Death Row boss Suge Knight embroiled Snoop in yet more conflict, culminating in the mysterious shooting of label mate and the west coast’s favourite son, Tupac Shakur.

Fast forward to the present. Literally stopping traffic as he takes a tour through Trench Town, where Bob Marley and Peter Tosh came of age, you see how far Snoop has come. Not only is he the ghetto child made good, but his formidable aura, once defined by brash bravado, seems to have faded away. When an enraged resident squares up to him for some unknown grievance, Snoop diffuses the situation with a laid-back, effortless charm. Well, that and the offer of some of his extra-potent ‘California kush’.

In the studio, the tunes are forged in the same chilled-out haze. Assembling American producer Diplo and a gaggle of songwriters, Snoop lays down the law on day one – telling them to forget all his self-perpetuating trappings and create something that represents the peace, love and pacifism he’s come to embrace. In place of nihilistic gangster anthems and misogynistic odysseys are tracks about smoking up for peace, and tender father-daughter collaborations. While what results is more in keeping with the dancehall pop of the Vybz Kartel than reggae proper, the tracks still bounce merrily along with Snoop’s laconic, patois-inflected lines. Getting to see a unique project play out in such sumptuous locale is really a joy to see.

Snoop’s persona was always a carefully struck balance between that of the formidable thug and the French-braided jester: deadly serious one minute; playful and knowingly ridiculous the next. Reincarnated displays a similar dichotomy. One moment, he’s in raptures as he takes part in a fascinating, twilight ceremony at a Nyabinghi nestled in the Jamaican hills, vowing to uphold the teachings of the Rastafari. The next, he’s merrily pranking around with his cousin – who is wont to turn around to the camera and utter such gems as ‘I’m rolling a blunt in the jungle!’ – partaking only in the religions more immediately appealing practices.

As such, Snoop’s motives have been brought under much scrutiny. Bunny Wailer, the last surviving member of Bob Marley’s legendary band, and the man in the film who bestows the rapper with his new name – reasoning the newly beatific Snoop is a Dogg no more – has since hit out against the star for his ‘fradulent’ appropriation of the culture. Similarly, the Rasta Millennium Council has lambasted the rapper, stating: ‘Smoking weed and loving Bob Marley and reggae music is not what defines the Rastafari.’

They have a point. As ragga-poet Benjamin Zephaniah pointed out in a recent article, many modern Rastafarians forego reggae and reefer, especially now droves of Western twentysomethings have been systematically humiliating the culture by returning from their Caribbean ‘gap yahs’ dreadlocked and exclaiming ‘I and I’ as they cack-handedly roll one up. Others, however, have been more forgiving – the Marley family, among others, voicing support for Snoop.

What truly grates is that among those most fervently trashing Snoop’s transformation, the vast majority are atheistic critics and columnists. Just as the commentariat has seen fit to wade in on the spiritual affairs of the Church of England of late, so too have its members lined up to tell Snoop he’s not really the Rasta he thinks he is.

This reeks of double standards, especially given the ten-a-penny phoney Buddhist Tinseltowners who are fawned over by the entertainment press. Indeed, what underlines such spite is the assumption that Snoop, the gangster caricature and venal fiend, isn’t capable of having a change of heart. Instead, it’s a trick, a ploy, a joke, at least. It’s rather telling that, as this documentary shows, his foray into pimping in the late 90s was, if anything, more embraced by the media –a feather-capped Snoop even gracing the cover of Rolling Stone with the caption ‘America’s Most Loveable Pimp’.

But as he opens up about his chequered past, visits programmes aimed at putting musical instruments in the hands of at-risk kids, and helps set up Jamaican-based charities in the name of his new religion, Snoop comes across as really rather sincere.

Reincarnated may be self-indulgent and perhaps really only one for the fans, but it does have at its centre an entertaining and effortlessly charismatic subject, who, given his vibrant two-decade career and innumerable achievements, shouldn’t be so readily dismissed.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Reincarnated here:

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