"Sir, please stand back."
I'm waiting near a restricted entrance to Comerica theater when a security guard barks at me to step back. One of the perks of being press: Getting to use the employee entrance and bypass the huge line snaking around the block for The Puff Puff Pass Tour Part 2. A huge black SUV pulls up behind the venue. The security guard says "Snoop is here" into his earpiece. And sure enough, moments later, the man himself emerges.
Snoop is wearing a camo-print hoodie. He walks within spitting distance of me, his face as serene as a samurai. He walks with a slight lean, like the earth is permanently tilted beneath his feet. A burly man walks in front of him, holding what looks like a big black pillow with a speaker set in the middle of it. The pillow-speaker plays a Roberta Flack song that sounds like a sultry lullaby. Snoop follows the musical pillow into the building. No trails of smoke billow in his wake, but the air is definitely scented with something strong and unseen. It's like Bob Marley's ghost just floated by.
I get escorted through the labyrinth that is Comerica's backstage. It's like the scene in Goodfellas where Henry and Karen Hill enter the Copacabana through the kitchen, except it lasts 10 minutes and there are security checkpoints all over the place. The back area is buzzing with activity: Radio promo people and show organizers are darting back and forth, while entourage members and girlfriends and security guards and groupies and some guy who looks like El-P's cousin crowd the edges of the stage.
I arrive just as Tha Dogg Pound are halfway through the set. Daz and Kurupt are warming the crowd up with some old G-Funk gems. Both men sound confident and fired up on the mic. They look like living embodiments of the "I'm just happy to be here" meme; odds are good that nobody's come to this show specifically to see Tha Dogg Pound, but they rap like they're headliners.
It's early in the evening but the smell of herb is already strong in the theater. Little puffs of smoke materialize over the huge crowd in Comerica, illuminated by the purple lights beamed from onstage. Warren G walks onstage, rapping into a defective mic. He switches it out for a good one and launches into "Just A Lil' Bit."
It became pretty obvious during Warren G's set that the dude's voice has seen better days. The DJ amped up the volume on the original vocals of Warren's songs, which often completely drowned out his voice. He wasn't lip-synching; in quieter moments you could hear him working the mic, but it was a pale shadow of what he used to sound like. Even during "Regulate," Warren let his old self take control of the song.
One thing that was touching about his set was that Warren included a medley of Nate Dogg tunes as a shout out to his fallen friend. Nate became the evening's "fifth Beatle"- every act onstage paid homage to him, rapping and singing his iconic parts. And while both Snoop and Bone Thugs would later offer their own tributes to Nate Dogg, neither of them did it with as much sincerity and emotion as Warren did.
Too Short followed Warren's with a set that was (pardon the pun) too long. Short Dawg brought a twerkin' dancer named Miss Melissa onstage. She wore a skimpy outfit and badass silver sneakers with red LED lights in the soles. While Too Short spat out hit after hit, Miss Melissa twerked furiously. Too Short sounded just as forceful live as he does on record. Time's been good to him- He sounds just as confident and gross as ever.
Too Short left the stage and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony swarmed the stage to deliver the evening's most disappointing performance. Trouble was clear from the moment they opened with "The First Of The Month": They didn't sound cohesive at all. That smooth, unified sound that makes vintage Bone Thugs songs such a joy was entirely absent live. They sounded like they were rapping in different rooms, their harmonies a bundle of loose threads that never quite got woven together.
What also scuttled their performance was a "tribute" portion of their set, where they paid their respects to "fallen soldiers" by doing hits from Eazy-E, Biggie, and Pac. While I don't doubt the sincerity of the gesture, let's be real: When the biggest reactions you get from the audience is when you're playing OTHER PEOPLE'S SONGS, you've got a serious problem. More people lost their shit over their brief cover of "California Love" than they did over the Bone boys doing "Crossroads."
By the time the Bone Thugs wrapped up their set, it was around 11:30. The main man, the king of kief, the big Dogg himself, kicked off his set a quarter to midnight. He showed up wearing a Bill Cosby-esque Christmas sweater, wielding a golden mic in one hand and a fat blunt in the other. He looked and sounded ageless; I could close my eyes and swear that I was hearing Snoop circa "The Chronic," spitting fire with laconic cool, not even old enough to legally buy some Tanqueray.
Snoop Dogg is not all that exciting to watch live. He's too chillaxed to run around onstage and engage in any theatrics. He's in his zone, and that zone is laaaaaaaaaid back. What he has going for him, though, is charisma. And hits. You can't help but like the guy and find him compelling; even when he's barely moving on stage, he just draws your attention.
Snoop hopped back and forth in time through his huge catalog of hits. He paced across the stage with the same easy grace as a gecko scuttling on a wall. He brought on a pair of backup dancers to do their thing during "Beautiful," and later brought Kurupt and Warren G back onstage for a few tunes. The three of them rapping "Ain't No Fun If The Homies Can't Have None" with gusto was the highlight of the night, even more so than hearing the immortal "Gin and Juice" live.
As I left Comerica with the stoned masses, it made me marvel at how unique a figure Snoop is. There's no other rapper quite like him. He's gotten old but somehow never lost his cool, his essence. He can do TV shows with Martha Stewart and yet still sound convincing as a scary dude on record. He's America's lovable, goofy stoner uncle who can also convince a crowd of people to sing along to "Ain't No Fun If The Homies Can't Have None" like it's "Hey Jude."
It's a rare talent, being able to turn an ode to nut-juggling gangbangs into a feel-good anthem and not sound like a creep, but Snoop has it. Even when Snoop flirts with ladies in the crowd, saying "If she's got backstage ass, she gets a backstage pass," it seems harmless in ways that Too Short could never pull off when he raps about getting blowjobs from bitches.
He is all things to all people. Snoop's a pillar of the community and menace to society, a young bull and an old geezer. Fuck Rae Sremmurd: Snoop is the REAL Black Beatle.
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Last Night: The Puff Puff Pass Tour Part 2 w/ Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Too Short, Warren G, & Tha Dogg Pound at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix.
The Crowd: Jokers, smokers, and midnight tokers. Pretty much every possibly demographic and ethnicity was in attendance to some degree. Old time rap heads brushed shoulders with Juggalos, pop-collared bros, goths in anime shirts, and twerkin' MILFs. The U.N. wishes it could bring people together the way Snoop D-O-Double-G does.
Overheard: Some Dude: "Whatcha smokin' on? Is that that sativa, that purple ninja?"
Some Girl: "Whatever you wanna call it, it's weed, motherfucker."
Random Notebook Dump: I didn't take a single puff (I'm a professional, dammit), and yet hours later I still smell like I fell out of Peter Tosh's asshole.