Snoop's subtle gangsta rap

November 23, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

If controversy really does sell CDs, now is the time to be in th record business. Three of the most notorious acts in popular music are unleashing new albums today: Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Dr. Dre cohort currently under indictment for murder; Beavis and Butt-head, the animated MTV twosome whose show has been blamed for everything from arson to the decline of Western Civilization; and Guns N' Roses, the riot-inciting hard rock act whose name has become synonymous with excess and destruction.

Are there any turkeys in this holiday releases? Will anyone other than record store owners be thankful for this bounty? Should parents simply lock up their children now? Here's how the terrifying trio shape up.

On Aug. 26, Calvin Broadus -- a.k.a. rap star Snoop Doggy Dogg -- was indicted in Los Angeles on charges of accessory to murder. Within days, music retailers around the country responded to the news by doubling, tripling, and in some cases quadrupling their advance orders for Snoop's new album, "Doggystyle" (Death Row/Interscope 92279).

For many people, that epitomized the whole problem with gangsta rap. Not only does this tough-talking, gat-packing style breed violence outside the recording studio, they complain, but it's being tacitly encouraged by a recording industry interested only in a fast buck. What does it say about modern music that a murder charge would make Snoop Dogg's debut the most anticipated rap album of the year?

But those critics miss the point. The reason there's a buzz on do with what he did the night of the shooting than with what he did on Dr. Dre's triple-platinum "The Chronic." Because the real appeal of "Doggystyle" is music, not mayhem.

That may be hard to believe if all you know about rap is what you read in the op-ed pages.

Listen to the album, though, and the difference between "Doggystyle" and generic gangsta rap is immediately obvious.

For one thing, Dr. Dre (who produced the album) doesn't build his tracks around looped, predictable beats and simple-minded samples. His rhythm tracks have a genuine understanding of funk, the kind that comes not from sampling P-Funk but understanding what went into that classic groove.

So instead of kick-starting the groove on "Who Am I" by sampling the bassline from "(Not Just) Knee Deep" -- which is what any other rap producer would have done -- Dre devised a line of his own, one that captures the feel of a P-Funk jam while keeping the track totally contemporary.

Even better, Dre didn't program the line into a sequencer but had it played live, so the track takes on the organic feel of a real funk band.

Dre's gifts aren't limited to the groove, either. "Ain't No Fun," for example, opens with a crooned vocal by Nate Dogg -- part of Snoop's "Dogg Pound" posse -- that sounds like it fell off some '70s soul album (not that soul singers in the '70s used that kind of language, mind). Or check out the lush instrumental backing and sweet, close-harmonized choruses Dre puts into "Gz Up, Hoes Down." Most R&B hits don't sound as smooth as that bit of gangsta bravado.

Best of all, Dre understands how to convey mood through tempo and harmony -- tricks pop composers use all the time, but which rap acts generally ignore. So when Snoop pays tribute to Slick Rick with "Lodi Dodi" -- an updated version of "La-Di-Da-Di," Rick's 1985 hit with Doug E. Fresh -- Dre uses eerie, minor-key synths and a slow groove to remind us of Slick Rick's current situation (in jail on a murder rap).

Of course, Dre's production would be mere window-dressing if Snoop didn't hold up his end of things. But because Snoop's strengths are a little more subtle, rap fans won't be as easily awed by his contributions as they are by what Dre does.

Snoop, after all, doesn't sound like other rappers. Even though he clearly knows how to talk tough, his delivery is nowhere near as aggressive as other gangsta stars. His voice doesn't have the gut-deep punch of Ice Cube's, nor does he have the kind of penetrating vocal tone Ice-T has perfected.

Instead, his sound is laid-back and cool, at times barely more than a murmur. And as such, he makes his point not by force but inflection -- an ability to suggest everything from the self-assured swagger of a street-level mack to the boneyard chill of a killer's rage.

Unfortunately, Snoop's versatility makes it easy to take these songs at face value -- particularly the ones involving violence.

But his stance on that issue is hardly as extreme as legal troubles would suggest. He's no poster boy for pacifism -- note how casually he shoots the guy sweating him in "Pump Pump" -- but neither does he blithely portray violence without consequences.

Take "Murder Was the Case." This rap opens with what is probably the album's scariest moment -- two guys spot Snoop and decide to wet him. But because we identify with Snoop, it's hard not to shudder upon hearing the grim determination in the assassins' voices as their 9mm pistols pop.

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