More Moves Than Simpson: Snoop Dogg’s ‘No Limit Top Dogg’

Paul Thompson dusts off Snoop's second-best album.
By    July 27, 2016

Paul Thompson is on the other side, where them cowboys at.

Baby and Slim used to make Cash Money artists run laps around a parking lot outside the studio, rapping the whole time, just to improve their breath control. At No Limit you got a Beats By the Pound CD, four and a half weeks with an engineer, and some folded twenties for per diem. Then, you know, you went Gold and did it again seven months later.

The New York Times story on Master P from 1998 says he’s from “Louisiana, which is not known for its rap.”

Snoop joined No Limit at its commercial and creative peak. From 1994 through ‘97, the label put out 22 records; in ‘98, the year Snoop defected from Death Row, it put out 23. (The best might have been Shell Shocked.)

I’ve been thinking lately about how Tha Doggfather might be received today. In ‘96, there must have been a hangover from Dre’s Death Row departure and 2Pac’s murder. (It came out two weeks before Dr. Dre Presents…The Aftermath.) But can you imagine if a heralded rapper of today followed a masterpiece debut with an album so inconsequential? Snoop was acquitted of murder charges that February.

At the end of the title track he says “Election day…fuck your Democrats, fuck the Republicans, it’s all about the gangsta party.” Would that help or hurt?

Anyway, he jumped off the sinking ship. He signed with No Limit, which came out of left field but not so far left that the Times wouldn’t be interested. On “Hustle & Ball,” from his label debut Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, he addresses Master P:

“Yeah man, these niggas think that I done fell off man, think my shit done got weak, I guess.”

That song’s a weird case study, because you have that stretching synth effect from “Nas Is Coming” bumping up against those skittering hi-hats that belong to the deep south. It’s also the only time I can remember Snoop sounding so out of place as a rapper.

He’s usually unimpeachable–probably one of the three or four greatest rappers to ever live, where rapping is a physical and musical act. When he was still too young to (legally) buy Seagram’s, Snoop was already bending and twisting his voice like it was just another track Warren G lifted from dusty stacks of Parliament records. He can slip into lullaby like Slick Rick or project a cool menace.

But he’s not Mystikal. If you listen to “Hustle & Ball” today, the first half of the first verse (“Brush my teeth and then I creeps to the kitchen…”) is reliable, even memorable. But the lines “A whole lotta y’all niggas out there walk around dead–here, take this shovel” and “Stand out there on that corner long enough and watch what happen” are supposed to be the kind of gruff staccato that cuts through the beat, that’s so forceful it can weave in and out of rhythm with the drums, but become the dominant rhythm to the point where the drums are irrelevant for a few bars.

It’s the kind of thing Andre’s doing here. But it’s not Snoop, who’s much better when he’s being musical, even a little bit delicate.

I say all that to say that Tha Doggfather was the sophomore slump and Da Game wasn’t the comeback. In some ways, it’s ridiculous to think of Snoop needing a comeback at all: the guy had eight consecutive Platinum albums (and not, like, 328 feet down the foul line Platinum, but don’t-go-on-Cribs-because it’s-distasteful Platinum). There’s probably a book to be written on Snoop Dogg Critical Theory, but the long and short of it is he started to be seen as a singles artist in a genre where most of the critics and a good portion of the fans only care about albums, great albums, “concise” albums, comeback albums. 

Snoop’s second album for the label, No Limit Top Dogg, did have one kind of comeback: a reunion with Dr. Dre, who was nowhere to be seen on Da Game. “Bitch Please” is a good single, and probably did a lot to shore up the base, but it actually feels a little out of place. Maybe it feels like it’s from another world, or too acutely aware that it’s trying to bridge a gap: “Dre said there’s no limit to this/ As-long-as-we-drop gangsta shit.”

And to be real, the best version of the song is probably the one from that Eminem album everyone still pretends to like. The mix is certainly better–I’m convinced that the original “Bitch Please” wasn’t supposed to make it onto the album in that state. “Bitch Please 2” also has Dre smirking when he raps “Not these niggas again,” which was immediately floated as an N.W.A. reunion album title. Xzibit says “I might leave in a bodybag, but never in cuffs” and “When things get rough, I’m in the club shooting with Puff.” The Pulitzer for music that year went to a symphony or something.

Speaking of Eminem, Dre’s beat for “Buck Em” reminds me of Dre’s beat for “Role Model.” I’ll bet you Eminem has the wildest conspiracy theories about the O.J. murders.

“Bitch Please” was the exception. Top Dogg channels the meanest L.A. county minimalist and the most beautifully unhinged beats by the pound. The south and California share plenty of musical roots; pieces of G-funk litter early-’90s Texas rap, etc. At its best, the album merges those two into something frenzied, paranoid: see “G Bedtime Stories.” When it does spin off in the direction of Snoop’s youth or Master P’s algorithms, it does so in bizarre, off-kilter ways.

An aside on Slick Rick: Perhaps predictably, “G Bedtime Stories” starts with an ad-libbed “Uncle Snoop Doggggggggggg, could you read us a bedtime story?” I think Mos Def’s “Children’s Story” cover is one of the best diss songs ever, and is perfect in pretty much every way. But Mos isn’t rapping in Slick Rick’s voice, because how do you rap in Slick Rick’s voice? Who else sounds like a gold-plated savant raised in London and the Bronx? The only person who can is Snoop–he could back in ‘93 when he put the “La Di Da Dicover on Doggystyle and he dusted it off last year for Kendrick’s “Institutionalized.” The last line of Xzibit’s verse on “Bitch Please” is about “other rappers getting treated like a prostitute.”

“Snoopafella” jumps back even further than ‘85; it’s Cinderella set in east Long Beach, all over the Brick song that Ice Cube already flipped for “No Vaseline.” (Which tops “Children’s Story” on that all-time diss song list. Which was the subject of the best scene in Straight Outta Compton. Which is not particularly pro-Israel.) The song is absolutely insane–Snoop is toiling away for an evil step-dad, whose kids are taunting him: “My brothers, they used to boast and brag/ ‘We’ve got Fubu, and you’ve got rags!’

So Snoop hears some town crier (“Hear ye, hear ye!”) say a beautiful princess needs a date to the ball, and wants someone who can rap and dress fresh. His family wants him scrubbing floors instead, but ENTER a magical cloud of weed smoke named Herb. All Herb has to do is snap his fingers to outfit Snoop in a silk suit and fresh Chucks (“from the Footlock”), and to turn Snoop’s skateboard into a ‘64. One stipulation: be home by midnight.

Here’s the thing: That’s one of the more grounded songs on the album. Compared to the prior two efforts, the Snoop you get on Top Dogg is reenergized, adopting mid-’70s London syntax and snatching up Sticky Fingaz to open the album. Suga Free holds down “Trust Me,” a sleeper pick as one of Snoop’s ten best songs. “In Love With a Thug” plays to one camera as you might expect from the title, to the other as an uncomfortably honest self-analysis. But then the girl he blows off in favor of the song’s subject woman was in the latter’s place two weeks ago. The Down Chick Treadmill.

“Down 4 My N’s” is an soul-rattling, by-the-book No Limit hit–one of the best in that mold. You might know it from when Taylor Swift ripped it off.

Like Mac, C-Murder is serving time in Louisiana. Master P’s brother is in Angola, the most notorious federal maximum security facility in America. That’s where he became close with Boosie; their album from this year deserves your attention. C-Murder’s lawyers continue to argue that compromised jury deliberations should trigger the rapper’s release.

You want a precursor for the Snoop/Neptunes smashes? See Quik’s beat for “Doin Too Much.”

The song on Top Dogg that best highlights the beautiful absurdity of this era in Snoop’s career has to be “Ghetto Symphony.” The album’s full of Snoop’s inimitable voice and often-brilliant pen, but there’s something about Snoop playing Marley Marl. There’s something about the slowed-down beat for “The Symphony” kicking in and Snoop saying “Nephew…give me some of that No Limit shit.” It doesn’t make any sense, but at some point between Snoop’s classic introduction (“Get busy…”) and Silkk the Shocker stepping behind the mic, you realize that it doesn’t matter, that Snoop could be dropped in any era, in any city, and not only be the best rapper on any block but synthesize the outside world into detailed fairytales or blunted witticisms. The top dog of them all.

 

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