For approximately one year during my ignorant youth, I maintained that Snoop Dogg was the best rapper of all time. This position is indefensible. While you might split hairs and argue he was the best smooth rapper, provided you also built a time machine and killed the infant Slick Rick, there are just too many other greats—rappers who released better albums, took more risks and ultimately did more to change the game. To ignore your Biggies, your Tupacs and your Jays-Z in favor of Snoop is like insisting that Star Wars is the best movie ever. You only reveal the limits of your taste.
So let us revise our youthful overstatement and say that Snoop is the best-known rapper of all time. This, too, is conjecture, but it seems plausible. Unlike Pac and Biggie, he lived long enough to release a full catalog—14 studio albums plus numberless guest appearances. Unlike Kanye or MF Doom, his career started when rap was still on MTV, allowing him to reach a generation of casual fans who would not hear hip-hop again unless they sought it out. Heads may scoff, but Snoop remains a top-five rapper among people who cannot consistently remember the other four.
His mainstream appeal is undeniable. He has been nominated for 17 Grammys, though he never won. In 1995, for example, he was nominated for “Gin and Juice” but lost to Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” He was also nominated in 2009 for “Sexual Eruption,” a song that may not get the white girls dancing as reliably as “Gin and Juice” did. Snoop is a peculiar animal in that he is of the same vintage as the golden-age pioneers but kept on recording after they faded away.
His landmark work—as a guest on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, followed by his solo albums Doggystyle and Tha Doggfather—spans 1992 to 1996. His first No. 1 single, the mildly embarrassing but wildly successful “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” arrived in 2004. He’s released seven albums since then, including Coolaid earlier this year. This is just my opinion, but they are not as good as Doggystyle. You might be forgiven, then, for remembering Snoop as an artist from the ’90s.
His vaguely clownish demeanor, stern in face and voice but winking in presentation, fits the performance style of that era. Although he was an actual Crips member, he does not pretend to keep it real as insistently as Gucci Mane or even 50 Cent. He is of the generation that made rap safe for mainstream America, appearing in commercials for America Online and on Jimmy Kimmel Live. More than any of his contemporaries, he is a brand, having become to rap in 2016 what Tiny Tim was to folk music in 1986.
The journey of the middle-aged rapper runs into uncharted territory. Around the time he signed to Capitol Records and turned 30, Snoop gave up his youthful gangsta image for the more loosely defined “pimp.” But whither the pimp in his 40s? His conversion to Rastafarianism and the stage name Snoop Lion, in 2012, felt like a midlife crisis. We’re all glad he’s since come to his senses, but it’s hardly clear where his career might go from here. When you went platinum rapping with Dr. Dre at age 21, where could you possibly be a quarter-century later?
For now, he is on the Puff Puff Pass Tour Part 2 with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony—an act that never approached his commercial success but now seems strangely more influential, at least in southern rap. Someday, Snoop will be rap’s Willie Nelson: stoned, still doing it, hearkening back to an ill-remembered time. Until then, he lives on as a symbol of rap’s nervous middle age, towing a legacy that seemed like it would never get old.
Snoop Dogg performs at the Adams Center Tue., Dec. 6, at 8 PM. $62+.