Like most hip hop heads who grew up with The Chronic and Doggystyle, Snoop Doggy Dogg was once one of my favorite artists. The combination of Snoop's laid-back flow with Dr. Dre's G-Funk-tinged beats was a potent one, forever changing the course of gangsta rap by adding melody and swagger into the mix. Unfortunately, Snoop's fabled career handicapped him with a disadvantage right from the start: once Dre flew the Death Row Records coop, he was left to his own devices, and he was never given a proper opportunity to introduce himself to the masses without the good Doctor's aid, so he was forced to establish his own identity merely because not doing so would have meant the instant need for him to find another line of work.
Snoop's sophomore album Tha Doggfather was a step in the right direction: the production wasn't as good as I would have hoped, but at least he proved to everybody that he was, in fact, capable of working outside of the Andre Young Experience: some of that project was even entertaining. But Tha Doggfather was released while Snoop Doggy Dogg was under the jealous, watchful eye of Marion “Suge” Knight, so the true test of his mettle came when he escaped from Death Row, defecting to Master P's New Orleans-based No Limit Records and releasing his third effort, Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, a bloated effort almost wholly manufactured in-house by P's Beats By The Pound production team, with almost every single guest star slot filled by his new coworkers at the label. Although that project sold a ton of copies, it also added a humanizing element to the story of Calvin Broadus, mainly because it sucked so fucking much that it proved that he was capable of failing spectacularly when given half a chance.
In the fickle musical genre known as hip hop, the tanking of Snoop's third album (pun intended) should have spelled the end of his commercial career: he should have been resigned to spending the remaining years of his tenure squandering his talents in underground indie-label purgatory, releasing free mixtapes to Interweb blogs that nobody downloads while occasionally performing in small club venues for crowds who revel in nostalgia whenever “Gin & Juice” plays on the radio. Or, at the very least, people should have stopped giving a fuck about him: if his signing with Master P was the receipt for his coffin, the fact that he essentially signed away his soul just to get away from Suge Knight, consenting to the every whim of his new boss, was the final nail hammered into it.
Apparently Snoop Dogg has more lives than most cats. It turns out that Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, ridiculous title and all, was done more as a favor to Master P than as any sort of real creative effort: Snoop's interpretation of your average overstuffed No Limit Records effort ended up being one of the label's biggest sellers, and his actual signing to the label brought far more media attention Master P's way than any of the sixteen other albums that dropped in that same month. So when it came time for Snoop to record his follow-up, No Limit Top Dogg (the title was a sly potshot at the rapper Top Dogg, a Death Row refugee who was retained by Suge Knight solely because his voice sounded an awful lot like Snoop's), Master P gave him full creative control, thereby allowing the project to become the first album distributed by the label that sounded nothing like the rest of the No Limit catalog.
No Limit Top Dogg reunited Snoop Dogg with his West Coast home (which, admittedly, he never really left in the first place, but there wasn't much of a trace of California on his previous effort), putting him back in play with producers such as DJ Quik, Meech Wells, Jelly Roll, and, most excitingly, Dr. Dre himself, who gave his former rhyme partner three beats to work with, one of which he even elected to rhyme over. The reunion between Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg was all that was needed for most people to start looking in Snoop's direction again, which was a much better marketing plan than what anyone at No Limit could come up with: with only a handful of beats crafted in-house and only three tracks featuring any of his coworkers, Calvin didn't leave his label home much to work with.
These days, Snoop Dogg is so overexposed that it's impossible to not know who he is: the man is an overbearing media presence who also occasionally writes songs. His career has lasted much longer than it has had any right to, thanks to our host's ability to recreate himself at the drop of a hat without changing a single thing about himself: the man somehow discovered the Fountain of Relevancy early on. Back in 1999, though, I couldn't be bothered with him: although he was once one of my favorite rappers, after the Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told debacle, I found other artists to throw my money at, so I didn't actually buy No Limit Top Dogg until very recently. I'm already familiar with the three Dr. Dre-produced tracks (thanks to the Interweb, I first heard them when this album dropped, but aside from the first single “Bitch Please”, I maybe listened to them about two or three times before moving on), but everything else on No Limit Top Dogg (which I just realized came out almost twelve years ago – fuck, I feel old) should be a surprise.
1. DOLOMITE (INTRO) (FEAT. RUDY RAY MOORE)
2. BUCK 'EM (FEAT. STICKY FINGAZ)
Kicking off No Limit Top Dogg with a Dr. Dre-produced instrumental (one with an Old West feel, at that) is a good sign that Snoop's third album has been lost in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, Calvin flushes the prescription down the toilet, spouting generic gangsta threats that share no bloodline with the previous bar, while Onyx's Sticky Fingaz is wasted on the hook. Snoop has obviously grown up since Doggystyle, but while that album sounded playful, our host just sounds bitter on “Buck 'Em”, and that's an outfit that doesn't hang on him well. I assume, given Sticky's random cameo, that this was recorded at the same time as Eminem's Sticky-fingered “Remember Me?”, which was originally set for a previous incarnation of Dr. Dre's 2001 (back when he was still calling it Chronic 2000).
3. TRUST ME (FEAT. SUGA FREE & SYLK-E. FYNE)
Snoop graciously steps to the rear in favor of his invited guests Sylk-E. Fyne (best known for 1998's “Romeo & Juliet”, a hip hop travesty) and West Coast blogger favorite (and friend of DJ Quik) Suga Free, but his action has the adverse result of sounding like Snoop himself is making the cameo. Suga Free's bullshit contribution at the beginning is exactly what it sounds like, and Sylk will never find herself among the top female rappers, as she proves that she is unable to spit a verse that fits within the constraints of the beat. Oh well, I guess the comparisons to Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told were inevitable: I was just hoping that I would get a bit further into the tracklisting before succumbing to the drama.
4. MY HEAT GOES BOOM
Meech Wells's beat sounds almost exactly like “Still A G Thing” from Snoop's last album (which makes sense, as he also produced that particular song). Calvin seemed to think so, anyway, with his early callback to that previous song. The overly violent chorus clashes with the smoothed-out instrumental in a humorous fashion, if by “humorous” I actually mean “really fucking stupid”. To his credit, Snoop sounds alright enough when he's back on his gangsta rap shit, but the hook (which reminded me of the ending of Mack 10's “Only In California”, which featured Ice Cube and (a-ha!) Snoop Dogg) causes this milk to turn sour relatively quickly.
5. DOLOMITE (INTERLUDE) (FEAT. RUDY RAY MOORE)
Calvin continues his tradition of paying homage to his hip hop elders by remaking Dana Dane's “Cinderfella Dana Dane”. Was this truly necessary? Not really, but Snoop's appreciation of the old school is always a nice character trait, and this Ant Banks-produced track probably kept Dana Dane swimming in royalty checks for at least a week, so that's good. Also, Snoop sounds far more invested in his own rhymes when he's paying his respects, from “Lodi Dodi” to “Vapors” on down to this track. Does anybody else feel that way, or is it just me?
7. IN LOVE WITH A THUG
From the Nicolas Cage movie of the same name.
8. G BEDTIME STORIES
Although the song tricks you into thinking otherwise, this is not a true homage to Slick Rick's “Children's Story”. Instead, what we receive as a highly inappropriate bedtime story read to an anonymous child, with its violent content existing solely because Snoop is, ostensibly, a gangsta rapper (although it's pretty hard to tell these days). At least the Meech Wells instrumental helps rush this track through its slightly-over-two-minute routine.
9. DOWN 4 MY N----Z (FEAT. C-MURDER & MAGIC)
One of only three songs on No Limit Top Dogg that reminds listeners that Snoop Dogg was indeed still signed to No Limit Records at this point in his career. KLC's beat is actually really fucking catchy, even if C-Murder and Magic are outclassed; this track is one of the better trunk rattlers I've heard from Master Percy's camp. This is one of those instrumentals that a more capable rapper can easily turn into something memorable. (I'm not trying to say that The Game is better behind the mic than Snoop, but Jayceon's freestyle over this beat is one of my favorite mixtape throwaways of his.) The radio edit for this was entitled “Down 4 My Killaz”, which is somehow even more offensive to me.
10. BETTA DAYS
Makes “Down 4 My N----z” sound like fucking “Criminal Minded”. Calvin has put some obvious effort into his lyrics (relatively speaking), but he recites them poorly, and Meech Wells (and Def Jeff) provide a happy-go-lucky beat that winks at the audience too often to ever be taken seriously.
11. SOMETHING BOUT YO BIDNESS (FEAT. RAPHAEL SAADIQ)
Snoop revives his fictitious WBALLS radio station to present a boring-as-shit R&B number with Raphael Saadiq, an artist whom I normally enjoy listening to. Just not on here. (During his Death Row days, Snoop and Saadiq collaborated on a far-superior track called “Midnight Love”, so it isn't as though this pairing came out of left field.) Am I the only guy that thinks Snoop Dogg fucked up by not starting up a satellite radio station called WBALLS? I mean, seriously, Eminem has his own channel. Someone needs to get on that shit.
12. BITCH PLEASE (FEAT. XZIBIT & NATE DOGG)
The centerpiece of No Limit Top Dogg is also its biggest single and its best song, as Snoop, Xzibit (performing for the first time over a Dr. Dre beat), and Nate Dogg (R.I.P.) flow effortlessly over the dark melody. This track proved that Snoop could still rock a Dre beat with ease, and the reunion (after Dr. Dre's original version of “Zoom” featuring Calvin was aborted) was exactly what hip hop needed to hear back in 1999 (and served as a brilliant commercial for Dre's comeback album 2001, released later that year). Thankfully, “Bitch Please” (or, as it's known on the radio, “B Please”) still sounds damn near flawless today, and it resulted in more hip hop heads paying attention to Xzibit, which is usually a good thing.
13. DOIN' TOO MUCH
With 21 tracks on No Limit Top Dogg, it can be successfully argued that Snoop took the title of this song a little bit too literally, tacking on this DJ Quik-produced number that isn't memorable enough for me to actually write anything about it. Although most No Limit releases are stuffed to the gills, so...
14. GANGSTA RIDE (FEAT. SILKK THE SHOCKER)
Unlike on his last project, Snoop has largely ignored the pleas of his coworkers to please please please can they make a cameo appearance, choosing instead to collaborate with artists that fans of the genre actively give a fuck about. However, Calvin is still a loyal friend, and he really wanted to win that $25 gift card to Hot Topic that Master Percy promised to the Employee of the Month, so Snoop allows Percy's little brother Silkk The Shocker to contribute some forgettable vocals over this plain Meech Wells instrumental. Snoop cryptically tells the gangstas listening that “Y'all need to aim those guns in the right direction”; that was overly confusing and dark for an otherwise bleh track.
15. GHETTO SYMPHONY (FEAT. MIA X., FIEND, C-MURDER, SILKK THE SHOCKER, MYSTIKAL, & GOLDIE LOC)
This would be laughably forgettable if the artists involved weren't so goddamn earnest in their intentions. Yes, older readers, the presence of the word “symphony” in the title does imply that these No Limit Soldiers (along with Snoop's weed carrier Goldie Loc, for some odd reason) try their hardest to bastardize the Juice Crew classic. Producer KLC left his harder drum samples at home, though, and without any semblance of rhythm to follow, this nearly six-minute track feels three times as long. There is no need for any of you two to ever listen to this shit, but at least the artists take their work seriously enough, even if they all suck.
16. PARTY WITH A D.P.G.
Jelly Roll's instrumental sounds minimal at first, but it grows into something that envelops your subconscious so gradually that you don't even notice it until you catch yourself trying to buy a one-way plane ticket to Long Beach. The decision to ape Earth, Wind & Fire's “Shining Star” on the chorus was questionable, since Wu-affiliates Sunz Of Man did a much better job (not only did they go straight to the source, they also called upon Wyclef Jean and Ol' Dirty Bastard for assists) one year prior, but this song was still pretty entertaining, especially when Snoop offers up this choice line: “'Why you acting bad?' / Probably 'cuz I'm known as a bad actor”. Hi-larious!
17. BUSS'N ROCKS
Kind of corny, but I'd be lying if I said that this goofy DJ Quik-handled track (rendered goofy because of the chorus, which Snoop sings himself) was completely awful. I won't ever feel the need to listen to it again, but it does the job, I suppose.
18. JUST DIPPIN' (FEAT. DR. DRE & JEWELL)
“Just Dippin'” fits onto No Limit Top Dogg much better than one would expect a Dr. Dre performance to sound while gracing the House That Master P Built with his presence. True, neither Snoop's nor Dre's verses make much sense, especially as Andre only spits, like, four bars and negates his entire cameo with inane rhymes, but the musical experience was still very pleasant. Former Death Row Records songstress Jewell completes the time travel effect by providing vocals, as well: she should only sing over Dr. Dre-produced beats. I wonder whatever happened to her.
19. DON'T TELL (FEAT. WARREN G., MAUSBERG, & NATE DOGG)
Seriously? Snoop couldn't find a better DJ Quik beat for his former 213 bandmates Warren G. and the late Nate Dogg (with Quik's deceased homey Mausberg tagging along for good measure) to collaborate on? Oh well. Rhyming about pussy happens to be Snoop's forte, so he at least sounds pretty decent over this quiet storm of an instrumental, and the rest of the invited guests...well, they made it to the studio on time, so that should be rewarded somehow. I'm just more disturbed by the mortality rate this song promotes.
20. 20 MINUTES (FEAT. GOLDIE LOC)
Well, at least this track doesn't actually last for twenty minutes. Because that would make for a level in my personal hell, you see.
21. I LOVE MY MOMMA
Snoop caps off the overly-long No Limit Top Dogg with an ode to his mother, and it doesn't sound nearly as bad as it does on this virtual paper. The Meech Wells instrumental keeps things moving, and Snoop keeps his rhymes to a minimum, so as to not sound so cheesy when compared to the singing. This was one of the more interesting ways Calvin Broadus has ended an evening, but it still wasn't bad.
THE LAST WORD: Proving that even Snoop Dogg actually listened to his last album, No Limit Top Dogg is, sonically, the polar opposite of Da Game Is To be Sold, Not To be Told. And to be fair, there are some very good songs on here. The problem is that those very good songs are hidden underneath piles of stupidity. Master P allowed Snoop to have complete creative control, which can only be a good thing, but Snoop has problems finding something worthwhile to talk about half of the time, resorting to ridiculous gangsta tropes that were old when Doggystyle first hit store shelves. No Limit Top Dogg isn't worth a purchase, but at least Snoop Dogg proves that he is still worth paying attention to, as he could have easily melted into the background with his fellow No Limit soldiers after how well his last album performed. Also, “Bitch Please” is an awesome return to form, so there's that.