Snoop's slippery-smooth deadpans and deadly smirks provided the perfect complement to Dre's production. But with Dre's departure and Shakur's death, the pressure was on Snoop to deliver a CD without his sonic alter ego that would nevertheless reestablish the primacy of the Death Row label. Tha Doggfather isn't up to it. The production from DJ Pooh and Dat Nigga Daz mostly reiterates Dre's P-Funk inclinations. Snoop is still a marvelous rapper--his rhythmic grace and timing are impeccable and his pinched tone remains utterly distinctive--but his passions here are bragging about how rich and popular he is and how much he likes to abuse women, in between advising kids to become doctors and lawyers. Suffice to say that the best track on Doggfather may be a rock-inflected remake of Biz Markee's "Vapors."
With R&B-oriented yet roughhewn production and more impulsively tossed-off raps (delivered in his nondescript, staccato style), Shakur's Makaveli is nowhere near as well-crafted as either the Dre or Snoop disks. But, sounding like outtakes from All Eyez On Me, it's gangsta rap to the core. With a mind that twirls like a roulette wheel and a bravado intent on turning his life into a game of Russian roulette, Shakur disses Dre for leaving Death Row, telling him and all others who engage in "peace talk" that they can "Kiss my ass from here to across the street/ It's on."
His pressurized universe is made all the more apparent on "Krazy," a profoundly sad song about being drug-addled and exhausted. But Shakur holds forth with his doomsday mission: "Life Of An Outlaw" is set to some flamenco guitar line and bumpity bass, while "Me and My Girlfriend" establishes his parallel fantasy with Bonnie and Clyde. But the most memorable lyric is on the appropriately titled "White Man'z World," when Shakur says with an equal mixture of contempt and glee, "All these muthafuckahs want to be like us/ Be the have-nots."
Listening to Death Row's Greatest Hits, it is that sinister luxuriation in thug privilege that comes through, that sense that not only are they in the promised land, but that they get to tear shit up along the way. You hear it in the molasses drawl of Snoop's introductory greeting, "Bow wow wow/ Yippee yo yippee yea.."; in Dre's gorgeous production and matter-of-fact brutality, even on relatively recent tracks like "Keep Their Heads Ringin'"; and in Shakur's psychological ricochet between odes to his mama and paranoid screeds against the world.
But now, it seems, the Death Row juggernaut has been broken--even Knight is feeling heat over a potential parole violation that could strip him of day-to-day control of his company. While Shakur nemeses like Mobb Deep are making records that point toward the future of gangsta rap, Death Row's best meal ticket is gone forever; their best producer is literally consorting with the "enemy" (the East Coast collaborations are among the highlights on Dre's Aftermath); and with Doggfather, their remaining superstar has proven himself in need of visionary producer to maximize his talent. Death Row has too much momentum, geographical loyalty, and pure skills among its personnel to fall off totally. But the aura of commercial and creative invincibility that once surrounded the label has faded like the haze of blunts already smoked.