A year after delivering a bloated, scattershot collection of experiments and tired gangsta-pop tropes, Snoop is back with his shortest set yet, one in which he appears comfortable spending much of the time on the sidelines.
Snoop Dogg's past couple of albums, 2006's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment and last year's Ego Trippin', were nothing if not endurance tests. The former contained 21 tracks of gangsta recidivism on top of forward-looking production, while Ego Trippin' found Snoop in a schizophrenic state of mind; one minute hosting a West coast party or poking fun at himself, the next playing country rap alongside Everclear. So to call Malice 'n' Wonderland's runtime a surprise is being conservative. Malice 'n' Wonderland is more cohesive than Ego Trippin', thanks to some subtle sequencing and the precise tracklist. The interlude at the end of "Secrets" is an accordion-inspired remix of "I Wanna Rock", while "Pronto" and "1800" feature transitions that help introduce the following track. "1800" and "Different Languages" couldn't be further apart in style, but they sound as close to happy bedfellows as possible here. Unfortunately, despite a more cohesive production aesthetic overall, this album still falls prey to many of the same faults as Ego Trippin'.
Here Snoop is pretty lazy on the mic compared to Blue Carpet Treatment, No Limit Top Dogg or Doggystyle, and that's saying something. Soulja Boy does his best (worst?) impression of Gucci Mane sidekick Waka Flocka Flame on "Pronto". He redeems himself with the autotune chorus, though. Its nods to West coast flavor and seductively catchy melody grew on me over the past weeks while most of this album has felt more and more shallow over time. In fact, Soulja Boy could reasonably make a claim that he outrapped Snoop on his own track. After hearing the verses one might not be sure it counts as a victory, but it is something that stands out to these ears. The-Dream also steals the show both times he appears on the disc, once with the single "Gangsta Luv" and later with the similarly titled "Luv Drunk", a track that might as well say featuring Snoop Dogg instead and doesn't reach the candy-coated heights of the earlier track or other recent Dream collaborations. In fact, your enjoyment of Malice 'n' Wonderland may come down to whether or not you appreciate the choruses and production, because most of this album feels more like a collection of collaborations than a true album, more of a diversionary mixtape than a contribution to the Snoop Dogg canon.
What ends up being hardest to reconcile here is the album's strict lean towards pop music. "1800" has hints of dubstep and "That's tha Homie" is shockingly dull, but most of this stuff is pretty light, accessible and fun. "Special" isn't too far removed from the Neptunes' collaborations with stars like Mariah Carey in the early half of the decade, other than carrying the burden of Pharrell's newfound easy listening bent. One other notable diversion is the album's lead single, "I Wanna Rock". Produced by longtime collaborator Scoop DeVille with assistance from the legendary good Dr. Andre Young, the track features a tilt towards electro and dubstep culture similar to "1800", with a chant of "Snoop Dogg" hearkening back to early '90s hip-hop. But even more enjoyable is the sample of Rob Base upon which the song is based. His repetition of "I wanna rock right now" sounds perfectly at home in the mix.
While the lyrics, like much of the album, seem to aspire towards nothing loftier than Atlanta strip club soundtracks and comfort food for car rides, "I Wanna Rock" stands out for its unique vision. Unfortunately, Snoop's backsliding into gangster rap on "2 Minute Warning" doesn't work like it did on Blue Carpet Treatment. Because he doesn't sound in control of most of these songs, a lot of fans and curious passersby are going to be disappointed with this release. Not only is there less Snoop Dogg on a disc than ever before (the runtime itself is shorter than any previous Snoop album), but the Snoop we get is arguably one of his least inspired performances in years, perhaps period. It's clear he still knows how to make good songs, because this is an enjoyable album at face value. But Snoop comes from an era when mainstream hip-hop was at least slightly more than skin deep, and it's a bit of a shame to see him reaching for the pop charts and crossover material more aggressively than ever before.
Perhaps if his content had matured along with his sound, Snoop Dogg would be acceptable as an adult contemporary-type figure in hip-hop (I imagine "Different Languages" going much differently in the hands of a Jay-Z, Big Boi or Nas), but he is famously stubborn in his approach to MCing, so it's no surprise to find him coasting through much of this album. He attempts to nod towards new movements like jerking, but it's ultimately awkward for a guy his age (not to mention as relaxed as he is) attempting to fit into that scene. In the days of hip-hop as popular commercial product I'm increasingly unsure what its audience is looking for, but being that this album seems to rely so heavily on great hooks and attractive beats to sell Snoop's tired, been-there-done-that raps, I can't imagine this being a truly satisfying release for most listeners.