His release from prison rapidly approaching, Suge Knight is hungry, and the message on the Death Row Records Web site is painfully clear: “Congratulations Snoop Doggy Dogg from Suge Knight and Death Row Records for your recent success’s [sic] with Dead Man Walkin and Tha Last Meal. Death Row knows success for a Snoop Doggy Dogg album means $$$$ for Suge Knight. Keep it up because you know that Suge Knight eats off your next three albums as well as your last previous seven albums!!!!”
Since Snoop defected from Death Row for the more camouflaged confines of Master P’s No Limit empire three years ago, the war between the rapper and his former home has been consistent, if largely silent. Label don Suge is behind bars, jailed for a parole violation in connection with a Las Vegas casino beatdown the night Tupac was fatally shot. For his part, Snoop has never been one to raise his voice; his trademark has been his ability to coast through drama as if reclining on a cloud. He’s spent more time in the past few years nurturing Eastsidaz, Doggy’s Angels, and Little Bow Wow than securing his own game.
Sleeping dogs this size, however, don’t lie still for long. Over the past year, Suge Knight has been granting sporadic interviews, and he’s had less-than-kind words to offer about the dearly departed Dogg. “I don’t have any feelings towards that impostor, Snoop,” Knight told Controversy magazine, “[He] can’t walk into any ghetto, because everybody sees him for what he is, a fake. To be a black man and not be able to go to the ghetto, that’s bad.”
But while Knight may not have feelings for Snoop, he certainly maintains financial interests in him (though technically he can’t conduct business while in prison). With Snoop set to release his third album for No Limit, Tha Last Meal, late last year, Knight’s Death Row Records, newly rekindled on the strength of the Dre-irking Chronic 2000 compilation, launched yet another preemptive strike. Dead Man Walkin, culled from long-vaulted recordings Snoop made while still at Death Row, was packaged and released first. Then, in a move that would do both Shawn Fanning and John Gotti proud, the label posted the album on its Web site alongside illegally garnered tracks from Snoop’s legitimate release, asking fans to pick their favorite.
This trick—dubbed The Snoop Dogg Challenge—demonstrated that even with Suge locked away, Death Row was still a dangerous place. But aesthetically, little was proved. Snoop’s always been a bit of a complacent MC, earning back in style the points he’d lose over redundant content. In his youth, on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and on his own debut, Doggystyle, Snoop made murder fantasies sound positively sultry, his slight twang undulating around the beat to relaxing, chilling effect. But whatever edge Snoop had was quickly dulled. By his second album, Tha Doggfather, his rhymes were already hackneyed, though his firewater flow kept him in pop eardrums.
Probably recorded around 1996, Dead Man Walkin is a scattershot collection that captures Snoop easing from gangster chronicles into more uplifting fare. Snoop the preacher is clearly in effect, especially on the harmonica-flooded porch soundtrack “County Blues” and the casually concerned “Too Black,” where, invoking the plights of black leaders past, Snoop warns, “If you don’t pay attention, you might come up missing.” But no amount of awareness can subvert his pimpish tendencies. “Hit Rocks” features the player in repose, unflinchingly confident in his skill: “I got your honey/Up under my wing/Cuz she like the song that the Bow Wow sing/I won’t buy her a ring/But I put her on a ‘ho stroll to make me some green/And even if she never ever sold it before/There’s just no way she can tell me no.”
If the ladies find it difficult to resist Snoop’s unique brand of puppy love, maybe it’s because he’s so damn pretty. Tha Last Meal shows Snoop at his primped, preened best, having honed his granddaddy-mack style to a fine bling (peep the moisturized and manicured hands on the cover of December’s Paper magazine). “I’m in a three-piece suit looking too cute/Mashin’, flashin’/Looking for a prostitute,” he giggles on “Stacey Adams.” Compared to the patchwork G-funk on Dead Man Walkin, Tha Last Meal is a sonic wonderworld. Dr. Dre and Timbaland gussy up Snoop’s drag with their unique shuffles, making his descent into even deeper banality irrelevant. Even the bold strokes of alleged concept—like sampling Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky deposition on “True Lies”—don’t make Snoop sound smart. Only on “Leave Me Alone” does he offer a glimpse of life behind his impassive gaze, singing, “I try to be myself and try to stay away from the world, but the world just keeps running after me/I try to shield myself away from all the wickedness, but somehow the wickedness is in my circle.”
Suge doesn’t get called out explicitly on Tha Last Meal, though Snoop alludes to his usurious, color-blind contract with the Blood-affiliated Knight on “I Can’t Swim”: “I’m in a meeting with these white folks talking bread/They want a contract on a nigga till I’m dead/If I don’t sign they gonna turn me over to the Feds/They struck me out, now I’m pinch-hitting for the Reds/But I’m a Dodger Blue so I gotta keep it true.”
Such cryptic verse is all Snoop dares release commercially. His harshest anti-Suge statement remains the unreleased track “Death Row Is Bitches,” which first surfaced last year on bootlegs and is now available via Napster. “Suge Knight,” he drawls, “your company’s gonna fall.” Though its sentiment is fierce, its execution is not, and Snoop’s syrup never threatens, though it does edge into well-deserved arrogance: “All that money I made ya/You’re major/I made ya, nigga/Now I’m ’bout to fade ya.” Incendiary for sure, but not nearly as virulent as the jabs thrown at Snoop by Suge’s camp. He’s skewered mercilessly by a slew of Death Row C-listers on the recent label comp Too Gangsta for Radio. Death Row allegedly purchased seats at several Up in Smoke tour dates last year only to taunt Snoop from the audience. And at the end of the Death Row Uncut home video, a voice provides directions to Snoop’s house, just in case any amped-up label acolyte has time, and ammo, to kill.
By now, Snoop may well be that most reviled thing in hip-hop—a studio gangster—but unlike any other rapper of his generation, he’s had his survival jeopardized by the very people who ushered him to his success. “This is the last time these motherfuckers are gonna eat off me,” he boasted to one magazine recently. But with his Death Row obligations coming to an end, is he worth more alive or dead?