The aesthetic behind Snoop Dogg’s latest record, Neva Left, reflects a sentiment that has been making an appearance across many recent releases from luminaries of the West Coast gangsta rap movement of the early 1990s. Despite Snoop having significantly branched out into a bevy of other genres since his heyday as a flagship of West Coast hip hop, such as his forays into reggae and dancehall on his 2013 album Reincarnated or the full-on disco-funk of 2015’s Bush, both Neva Left and its predecessor from last year, COOLAID, have presented themselves as rekindling the fire of the rapper’s revered contributions to the shape of the gangsta rap scene of the 90s with releases like his debut record from 1993, Doggystyle. In fact, just as COOLAID brandished an album cover designed by frequent Snoop Dogg collaborator, Darryl Daniel, aka Joe Cool, who was responsible for the definitive art style featured on records such as Doggystyle and Tha Last Meal, the cover artwork for Neva Left depicts a younger Snoop, pictured in 1992, standing next to a California State Route 187 sign. What’s more, with a title like Neva Left, the album’s message of recapturing the essence of Snoop Dogg’s early material should be loud and clear. Snoop, however, is by no means the only panjandrum of gangsta rap who has been presenting his new releases as harking back to the golden age of the genre’s lifespan, with The Game’s studio album from last year, 1992, being a prime example, courtesy both of its title and because of the fact that, once again, Joe Cool was enlisted to design the cover art in the era-defining Doggystyle aesthetic. It must be said, however, that 1992 was only partially true to its disposition as a comprehensive return to The Game’s classic West Coast sound from the early 90s, with much of the album playing more towards the pop rap territory of his more recent material, and this is even coming from someone who personally loved the record. COOLAID, too, saw Snoop only half-heartedly make an effort to recapture the spirit of his exemplary gangsta rap output, with many of the album’s deeper cuts being wound around the more contemporary hip hop and trap production that can be found in abundance elsewhere. As such, with Neva Left being overtly presented much in the same vein as records like COOLAID and 1992, I had more than enough reason going into it to be sceptical of how true it would stay to the original West Coast hip hop sound and, once again, the end product is only a partial and perfunctory commitment to the concept. Of course, it would be unfair to penalise the album on these grounds alone, but it’s also difficult to bypass the fact that the songs in the tracklisting that do adhere more closely to the fundamental tenets of gangsta rap are far more successful in playing to Snoop Dogg’s strengths and stand out as being by far the best cuts on the record as a result. Moreover, with the runtime of Neva Left, like that of COOLAID, pushing past the one-hour mark, much of the album comes across merely as filler, especially due to how little it adds to Snoop’s pre-established artistic persona. As such — and I’m sure I’m not the first to say this — it’s hard not to look at both COOLAID and Neva Left and wonder why the MC didn’t decide to cherry-pick the strongest and most authentic songs from each of these two albums and compile them into a single record that genuinely stayed true to the throwback sentiment. Focussing solely on Neva Left, however, the result is by no means a bad album, but the disparity between its best and worst tracks is made all the more apparent by the fact that it’s the more bona fide gangsta rap and G-funk cuts that comprise the best moments throughout the tracklisting, with Snoop Dogg not often bringing as much to the table on the less nostalgic tracks.
In case its name and artwork weren’t explicit enough, the opening title track of Neva Left addresses the entire sentiment of the album with a sort of modus operandi, as Snoop Dogg responds to the rumours that he “ain’t what [he] used to be” both in the song’s lyrics and the subtle funk influences worked into the West Coast-flavoured instrumental. It must be said that, whilst Snoop’s mellow, stoner flow complements the beat rather well, I have always been one to have reservations for hip hop tracks that sample an instrumental that has been incorporated into a much more well-known rap song previously, and with this opening cut lifting from various portions of The Charmels’ As Long As I’ve Got You, it’s only natural that the listener would compare this track to Wu-Tang Clan’s genre-defining classic C.R.E.A.M., to the point of being taken out of Snoop’s world. Although I am by no means opposed to rappers recycling samples from other hip hop hits, I nevertheless recognise that there is required a great deal of ingenuity and innovation in order to justify such a move, and I’m honestly not sure Neva Left can be said to go this distance. With C.R.E.A.M. being as iconic as it is, lifting a sample from the same source demands a hefty degree of creativity in order to put one’s own stamp on the song, especially given that Wu-Tang Clan’s version picks out some really interesting points in the track to loop and boasts one of the most beautifully subtle and legendary beat switches in hip hop history. In the case of Neva Left, however, As Long As I’ve Got You is incorporated into the beat in a relatively elementary manner, which would not likely be much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this very song has been integrated into another rap track in a far more compelling fashion. Of the other cuts in the tracklisting to patently pursue a golden age gangsta rap and G-funk sound, there are undoubtedly a handful of highlights, with Snoop’s laid-back swagger and variation in his flow on a song such as Promise You This genuinely adding some substance to the squelching synth bass and hypnotic groove that recalls the rapper’s earlier output, just as the potent, bassy beat and sharp, funk guitar stabs of Mount Kushmore bolster the hard-hitting bravado of Redman, Method Man, B-Real and Snoop’s posse performance. This being said, there seems to exist a semblance of cognitive dissonance concerning Snoop and his commitment to the throwback concept of Neva Left, and this is made clear most abundantly in some of his lyrical endeavours across the more sentimental songs in the tracklisting. The playful jabs at trap rappers like Lil Yachty on tracks such as Moment I Feared come across as relatively shallow, given that, only three songs later on the cut Trash Bags, the MC attempts to reconcile a more modern West Coast hip hop style with numerous trap tropes, not solely in the rattling, Southern-tinged beat, but also to the point that K CAMP is employed to deliver an awkward, auto-tuned hook that clashes rather clumsily with the deeper yomp of the G-funk bass. Ultimately, although there are undoubtedly some moments of devout, golden age, West Coast hip hop throwback over the course of Neva Left, Snoop Dogg’s dedication to this idea comes across as so contrived and ham-fisted at times, with instances of sincere 90s gangsta rap nostalgia being confined to a relatively small portion of the record, that it can be hard to appreciate the album at face value.
Of course, the issues that arise from the fact that Neva Left claims to be one thing and, in reality, is another are more nitpicks with the album’s concept itself, rather than the quality of the material on it, but even still, past the point of track four, wherein Snoop Dogg begins to branch out into all manner of rap styles, the standard of these songs makes for quite the mixed bag of a record, with many of the best moments in the tracklisting having previously been heard in single format. As an example, the Nightfall remix of Lavender, a song originally by instrumental hip hop and jazz outfit BADBADNOTGOOD, featuring KAYTANDRA, from their album from last year, IV, still stands as a match made in heaven, with the growling, nocturnal bass and squelchy, swirling synth embellishments crafting an intense, brooding atmosphere, over which Snoop’s dirty performance straddles the line between mellowness and aggression perfectly, as he applies fittingly gritty, animalistic imagery to reflect on police brutality in the United States. On a rather different note, the breezy, disco-funk vibe of Go On encapsulates some of the best moments from both Bush and Snoop’s collaboration with Dâm-Funk on 7 Days of Funk from 2013, meanwhile KRS-One incorporates his signature, abrasive Jamaican rap style into Let Us Begin as to capture an endearingly jarring point of contrast between his flow and Snoop Dogg’s usual, easy-going drawl. Songs such as these, with a clearly defined stylistic identity, unequivocally stand out on the record, but it has to be said that this also partially arises from the filler that surrounds them throughout much of the tracklisting, wherein Snoop and his collaborators can come across as if they are merely going through the motions for whatever style they happen to be pursuing on any given cut, to the point that they can prove rather arduous to discuss in any particular detail. Both Swivel and Big Mouth, for instance, despite their contrasting tones, adhere to a rather similar, rudimentary formula of sparse beats driven by punctuated piano stabs, whilst the hooks for each of these songs are notably underwritten, largely involving repeating the track’s title ad nauseam. Toss It, like the aforementioned Trash Bags, rather carelessly strives to make modern gangsta rap, à la YG, compatible with trap-orientated production, but lacks much in the way of nuance, with some standard, rattling hi-hats supporting a repetitive and rather run-of-the-mill G-funk bass groove, as if these two separate worlds were haphazardly mashed together, with no care given as to the consistency or refinement of the finished product. Ultimately, it’s fair to say that, with Neva Left providing quite the hodgepodge of stylistic undertakings, the end product is naturally rather mixed in terms of its overall quality, with the striking highlights, in which Snoop and his guest artists focus on refining one particular style, being swallowed up in the tracklisting by cuts that simply fulfil the superficial trappings of whichever genre they happen to be imitating.
I personally have nothing against the idea of an MC such as Snoop Dogg setting out on reinvigorating the essence of the classic West Coast hip hop and gangsta rap sound and, if anything, Snoop is likely more qualified than any of his peers to pursue such an ambition. What’s more, amongst some of the early moments on Neva Left, wherein the rapper stays true to the promise of the project being a throwback to his glory days, Snoop proves himself to still have it in him to capture and convey the Doggystyle spirit in peak form, but the record’s rapid descent into a mélange of all manner of styles can only leave the listener confused as to what exactly the direction or purpose of Neva Left is. With there nevertheless existing a handful of highlights amongst the album’s less focussed passages, it’s not as if Snoop’s waning devotion to the sentiment he set out to achieve on Neva Left is the salient reason for its somewhat underwhelming results, rather this arises from the deeper cuts in the tracklisting that don’t see the rapper play to his strengths, regardless of the songs’ stylistic underpinnings. Overall, therefore, Neva Left may yield some of the most outstanding songs from Snoop Dogg’s recent output, but the project, as a whole, is all over the place, both stylistically and in terms of the overall quality of the music presented across the album, resulting in somewhat of a smorgasbord of prime Snoop material and uninspired filler.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10