Rappers rarely age gracefully. Like most popular genres, rap music is a style that’s dependent almost completely on the attention of young consumers whose patience is short and whose listening span is limited. An older artist who seems to have been around forever will have a hard time reaching an audience whose age is that of his children. Only rarely will he succeed in updating his image sufficiently to stay relevant. Some rock artists get around the problem by relying on a loyal audience who age together with them. In hip-hop especially, age is an almost insurmountable obstacle.
Two big-name 1990s artists who have bridged the age gap pretty well are the rapper Snoop Dogg and the singer Mary J. Blige. Both released new albums last month. For a moment or two in the 1990s, Snoop Dogg was the face of West Coast rap. Since then he’s gone through numberless personal and business upheavals but has somehow stayed in the picture, thanks largely to personal charm. That quality has also helped him achieve and consolidate the status of a celebrity who’s frequently seen on television and in movies.
“Neva Left,” Snoop Dogg’s new album, constitutes a calculated return to his glory days. The songs are studded with quotes from vintage rap hits and feature guest appearances by rappers of his generation (Too Short, KRS-One, Method Man, Redman) that overleap the historic rivalries between L.A. rap and New York hip-hop. The disc’s greatest virtue lies in the fact that Snoop has hardly lost any of his punch as a rapper. The clear diction and the lazy tone that stretch the words to the furthest extreme, the humor – all have remained intact over the years.
Things get a bit creaky only when Snoop tries to work in political messages (such as riding the coattails of the black protest against police brutality) with threatening tones. That gimmick worked when he was a delinquent of 22 who barely avoided a murder conviction. But if video clips from that period describe him as a Doberman, these days he sounds more like a contented poodle.
Parallel to Snoop, Mary J. Blige, who like him was born in 1971, created, almost singlehandedly, the bridge between hip-hop and rhythm and blues. Blige was the Aretha Franklin of the 1990s. Several of her excellent albums, along with collaborations with rappers that were unusual for that period, defined the era and became hymns of empowerment and independence for a generation of black women.
The general tone of Blige’s new album, “Strength of a Woman,” does not depart from her work in the last decade: dramatic production, a terrific voice with resonance, a somewhat conservative approach and quite banal texts. Some of the momentum and charisma that Blige projected at her peak in the 1990s have vanished. The songs occasionally suffer from well-worn vocal mannerisms and especially from clichés in the spirit of self-help books.
The breakup of Blige’s marriage last year is constantly lurking in the background. As with Snoop, there’s a certain gap between Blige in her 2017 version and the energy and innovativeness she exuded in the mid-1990s. Her previous album, “The London Sessions” (2014), somehow managed to bridge the gap. Still, it’s hard to think of another active female singer whose voice can match Blige’s power. And if we ignore the fact that most of these songs sound very familiar, the new album is quite successful.
A newly published book in the United States that draws on testimonies of American soldiers who guarded Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before his execution, claims that the dictator was an avowed fan of Blige. Turns out that even mass murderers have soft sides – and, in this case, even pretty good taste.
“Neva Left,” Doggy Style Records. “Strength of a Woman,” Capitol Records
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