Everything old school is new again.
On the festival circuit this summer, rap superstars have been reaching back to career-defining records instead of spitting new material. The Wu-Tang Clan's GZA performed Liquid Swords at Bonnaroo in Manchester Tenn., Nas dropped Illmatic at Austin, Tex.'s SXSW, and, at New York's newest festival, Catalpa, last weekend, Snoop Dogg performed nearly every track from Doggystyle, the 1993 G-funk record that launched his multiplatinum career.
With another headlining set for Saturday at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal, it's difficult to guess whether the same Snoop Dogg will take the stage. Will it be the limber Death Row-era gansta, or his new reggae alter ego Snoop Lion on the mike? More importantly, which Snoop do fans actually want to hear?
The 40-year-old icon solidified his new musical direction at a press conference on Monday, where he announced a documentary to accompany his forthcoming album: Reincarnated. The feature-length film of the same name, which profiles his journey to Jamaica and resulting spiritual and artistic transformation, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
To devoted hip-hop fans, the switch is a confusing break from a proud West Coast tradition. Lucky for skeptics (and subsequently ticket sales) the veteran rapper is keeping his two creative identities commendably separate.
If his latest festival appearance is any indication, Snoop is willing to give fans what they want: just the old school hits, nothing more. The new-found reggae artist passed at the chance to play his patois-inflected single La La La on Sunday, and instead dispensed nuggets of hip-hop trivia from his early years in the business.
Reunited with Tha Dogg Pound stars Daz Dillinger and Kurupt as well as Lady of Rage, Snoop salted his Catalpa set with surprise spectacle and video interludes. Fans stood ready with smartphones, hoping to call out a deviation from the original Doggystyle tracklist. But the rapper remained faithful to the encore, right down to the foul-mouthed presong interludes.
To a screaming, middle finger-wielding crowd, the show's energy was better for it. Gin and Juice and What's My Name? hit predictably hard. There's always a palpable pleasure derived from hearing songs in their respective album order, though Snoop kept his audience on their toes with a few Dr. Dre hits from the same period, plus G'z Up, Hoes Down which was cut due to sample clearance issues from the 1993 release.
Snoop Dogg's separation of old and new schools is increasingly typical of touring hip-hop artists. The promise of a seminal album tour is an undeniable selling point, but like the much-discussed Tupac hologram at Coachella, a classic live album can feel perilously close to a vapid marketing gimmick.
Rock the Bells spurred the trend in 2010, when among other full-album acts, A Tribe Called Quest reunited to play Midnight Marauders. Since then, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Mobb Deep and Cypress Hill have all rolled out vintage albums on a Rock the Bells stage.
In 2012, throwback hip-hop performances have gone mainstream. No longer a career move reserved for the dinosaurs of rock, the hip-hop canon is pushing decades ahead of its rock album counterparts.
On the 1990s indie rock side of the fence, virtually no bands have chosen to take their seminal works on the road. A U.K. concert series sparked one-off performances of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and the Flaming Lips' TheSoft Bulletin, but none of those compare to the Who's upcoming 36-date Quadrophenia tour.
Which leaves other seminal acts of the pre-Internet age to contemplate: Why not tour the specific material that made you famous? (Imagine how many rock snobs pout when Pavement only plays three songs off Slanted and Enchanted, or when Radiohead skips the Pablo Honey favourites).
In the case of Snoop Dogg, the choice to go old school was itself a creative one. His retrospective hit the right notes, toyed with expectations, and confirmed fans will flock to hear any album that defined their youth or at least outraged their parents.
While the timing may feel like an ominous music industry death rattle, live reincarnations are undeniably on the rise. In some sense, the trend instills hope that album-oriented music may survive another decade yet.
"I ain't stopping," Snoop declared to the wide-eyed New York crowd last week, a haze of smoke obscuring the front rows. "I'm like that bunny, I keep going and going."
Snoop Lion & the Jungle play the Hoxton in Toronto Aug. 3. Snoop Dogg headlines the Osheaga Festival in Montreal Aug. 4.