Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg initially seem like an odd pair. What do an aging gangsta rapper and an even older country-pop icon have in common? Both are American icons whose celebrity has eclipsed the fame their music initially brought them.

Snoop Dogg released one great album, Doggystyle, 13 years ago, was arrested as an accomplice to murder, was the face of gangsta rap in the ’90s, made a couple of porn flicks and now he’s doing commercials for heavyweights like AOL, Nokia, Chrysler and XM Satellite Radio. My mother couldn’t name a single Snoop Dogg song, but she sure as hell knows who he is. Similarly the majority of this campus couldn’t name a Willie Nelson song, but I bet most admire the man anyway.

So again, why does America love this recidivous, corn-rowed rapper and grizzled Nashville hippie? How can Shotgun Willie be so staunchly anti-government (he refuses to pay taxes, at one point accruing a $16.7 million debt to the IRS), extremely pro-environment (he has his own biodiesel) and be so blatantly far-left socially, and yet still be loved in the same South that skewered the Dixie Chicks for the minor crime of being “ashamed” of Dubya? Despite their very real transgressions, all is forgiven and both are seen as fun-loving, gentle and relatively harmless – all thanks to their association with marijuana.

For Willie, it’s less a part of his art than for Snoop, who broadcasts his 420 friendliness in nearly every song. Still, Nelson is straightforward with his love of weed, as he is with most things – witness his position as an advisor to NORML and his cameos in “Half Baked” and the recent “Beerfest.” When GQ magazine wanted to smoke with the two most famous stoner musicians, they tracked down Snoop and Willie. (For the record, Willie’s was fantastic homegrown, but not nearly as powerful as Snoop’s – which rendered the writer unable to move for many hours.)

The point is, these lovable stoners have gained enough of a reputation that they can do pretty much whatever they want. Only Willie Nelson could release a reggae album with a huge cannabis leaf on the cover, his first such foray into the genre at 72, and have it be as good as 2005’s Countryman. Only Snoop could leave Death Row Records for Master P’s No Limit Records and not totally kill his career. That’s why it shouldn’t be too surprising that while these two musicians both take chances on their latest albums, they are by and large successes.

Willie Nelson’s Songbird is yet another seemingly odd collaboration that works marvelously. Nelson tapped the talented and mercurial Ryan Adams to produce, and even let Adams brings his own backing band, The Cardinals. The result is wide-open electric rock/blues like nothing in his back catalogue, but it sounds natural nonetheless. The song choices are similarly inspired, with two Adams originals, four Nelson tracks, and covers of tunes like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Gram Parsons’s “$1000 Wedding.” As talented as Adams is, he hasn’t necessarily shown the greatest judgment in the past, but he clearly brought the best out of Nelson.

Snoop also leans heavily on his guests with Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. Some of the songs work well, like “Imagine,” featuring Dr. Dre and D’Angelo and “Conversations,” with Stevie Wonder, and some are head-scratchers. “Which One of You” featuring Nine Inch Dix? Eww. “I Wanna Fuck You” with Akon? Gross. The good outweighs the bad, but with only one track without guests, it’s hard for the album to be all that cohesive.

But who really expects that from Snoop? Those of us suffering from short-term memory loss will have forgotten track two by the time they get to track 21 anyway. All that matters is that each is a banger.

Neither of these albums rank among the best for either artist, but both have earned a right to do whatever they want anyway. As long as Willie Nelson still acts like Willie Nelson, people will continue to love him, even if his music is getting increasingly different from what his core audience expects. He’s supposed to take chances. So is Snoop, and his recent arrest won’t change the fact that most people view him as a big soft, velour-tracksuit-wearing teddy bear. All Snoop has got to do is rhyme about herb and a gangster lifestyle he’s clearly left behind and people will keep loving him. The only real question that remains is when will these two get together? Now that would be the highest of collaborations.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Willie Nelson
Lost Highway

3 out of 5 stars

Snoop Dogg
Tha Blue Carpet Treatment

Snoop Dogg
Tha Blue Carpet Treatment

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