"We didn't know the level of Snoop's sincerity or commitment to the project when we signed up," Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi said. "Before the meeting, we thought, 'This could be some kind of one-off marketing gimmick. And it could go horribly wrong. Musically wrong. It could be really, really cheesy.'"
"But that's the beauty of documentary film," he continued. "He wasn't Snoop Lion yet. He hadn't been 'reincarnated' yet. That word wasn't even part of the discussion."
What started as a working vacation became a turning point in the rapper's career, thanks in part to Vice's input. Known primarily for its subculture-skewing magazine and website, this month the company's documentary film division captured headlines by sending former NBA star Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea, where they met dictator Kim Jong Un.
With a bit of prodding from director Andy Capper, Snoop strayed outside his typical cocoon of luxury for his three-week stay, meeting with locals in Jamaica's explosive urban conflict zone Tivoli Gardens and attending a Rastafarian religious ceremony at a Nyabinghi temple where the rapper says he underwent a kind of spiritual wake-up call.
The cameras were rolling when Snoop — who was traveling with Shante and daughter Cori — connected the dots between his new faith, the sudden 2011 death of his old friend and frequent collaborator Nate Dogg from a stroke and Snoop's 2006 gun and drug arrest (and subsequent probation). The upshot? The Dogg resolved to refocus his life's drive as a Lion.
"There were some big events in his life that had affected him," said Capper, Vice magazine's global editor and a frequent director for the company's film pursuits. "Nate Dogg dying was a huge thing. He'd had his guns taken away; the cops arrested him. He's a very soulful person. It made him realize his family was more important than a lot of things he'd been doing."
With its boilerplate reggae references to "revolution," "ghetto youth," the opening of a "third eye" and frequent salutation to the Rastafarian creative force Jah, the debut Snoop Lion album (executive produced by Grammy-nominated hit maker Diplo) reflects the performer's burgeoning consciousness and apparent finesse with his adopted musical idiom. Add in guest contributions from a host of hip-hop and R&B heavyweights including Rita Ora, Drake, Chris Brown and Busta Rhymes as well as such Jamaican musical luminaries as Mavado and Collie Buddz, and "Reincarnated" provides a surprisingly satisfying pupu platter of reggae styles, referencing dancehall, dub, roots rock reggae and even rub-a-dub style electro-clash.
Not everyone associated with the project is overjoyed with the performer's transformation, however. Wailer has accused the star of "outright fraudulent use of Rastafari Community's personalities and symbolism," insisting Snoop failed to meet "contractual, moral and verbal commitments" in a seven-page demand letter that also orders him to give up using the "Lion" part of his name, demanding he pay unspecified "financial and moral support." (Snoop disputes the allegations but refuses to condemn Wailer.)
Taken in the context of Snoop's gat-popping discography, the album's most startling cut is certainly "No Guns Allowed." But his favorite is "Tired of Running," the track featuring R&B crooner Akon in which Snoop basically repudiates his past with the line, "This gangsta life ain't no longer in me."
"That song is heavy," Snoop said. "You don't see me hanging out in the 'hood with a gun, drinking 40-ouncers, plotting on crimes, selling drugs, being a gang member, being negative, spray-painting on the wall. I don't live that lifestyle no more."
Still, make no mistake: Snoop Dogg has not been killed off in the name of Rastaman vibrations. The MC says he will continue to record and perform under his decades-old nom de rap and will go on performing G-Funk classics including "Murder Was the Case" as long as demand remains. Toward that end, Snoop said he's been discussing a tour with Dr. Dre that could kick off in the next six to eight months and would find the two performing material from "The Chronic," Dre's classic 1992 gangsta rap album that first introduced the world to Doggystyle.
"I'll never stop performing those songs because those songs are part of my life, my growth as a young man living out my childhood fantasies, even if that's not in me anymore," he said. "This is reality. Me doing what I love to be doing."
With a thoughtful drag on his joint for emphasis, Snoop added: "You can't be mad at the fact that I got old."