"word on the streets is you ain't what you used to be," an anonymous voice begins snoop dogg's fifteenth studio album, neva left. these aren't new accusations; snoop's credibility as an mc has arguably been on the rocks since the release of his second effort, tha doggfather. his sustained relevance is a testament to his charisma and sheer likeability as a persona. after all, it wasn't lyrical dexterity that made snoop's debut, doggystyle, so impressive. it was his uncanny ability to blend the streetwise edge of gangsta rap and the off-color humor of george clinton's funk, a skill that has influenced several generations of west coast hip hop artists, but has never quite been replicated. even snoop has struggled to rekindle the same flame; he's released several good records since (2006's tha blue carpet treatment is my personal favorite), but he's never reached the peak of his doggystyle days.
neva left seems poised to achieve that feat, and its dogged determination (*wink*) is simultaneously its saving grace and its downfall. the production work is stellar, a pallet of stone-cold bangers that consistently hits the sweet spot between current and retro. snoop's lyrics, however, have never sounded so forced. age doesn't have to be a boundary (redman and method man sound positively lively on "mount kushmore"), but it occasionally seems like one here; uncle snoop is literally the uncle at the barbeque on the painful "go on," and on the pervy "toss it," the MC ogles his children's classmates ("she said she went to school with my young son / fuck around and get popped with the bop gun"). the high points here occur when snoop stops trying so hard. he sounds right at home on the tracks produced by long beach legend dj battlecat, even if one of them is a pretty faithful revamp of tha doggfather's "vapors." however, "lavender (nightfall remix)," a collaboration with hot canadian items badbadnotgood and kaytranada, takes the cake. it's a "fuck tha police"-esque call to arms against police brutality, floating in a queasy soup of g-funk. its controversial video, which dropped back in march and features the mock assassination of a figure named ronald klump (subtle, huh?), strikes that perfect balance of weight and levity, and is easily snoop's best visual since 2007's outrageous "sexual eruption."
fifteen albums in, snoop dogg knows what works. he has a comfortable niche where he consistently excels, and in its best moments, neva left is a fitting reminder that he's one of hip hop's most dependable icons. the most progressive aspect of snoop's career, ironically, has been a defiant resistance to conformity. for this reason, the purpose of neva left is somewhat redundant; he's never given a damn what people thought before, so why start now? D+