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LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - When Snoop Dogg hit CNN's "Larry King Live" February 1, the segment may have brought into focus everything that's working for the rapper-turned-singer these days.
For starters, his electro-funk, '80s-influenced new hit, "Sensual Seduction," played in the background as Snoop took the talk show host to the Los Angeles hangout Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles.
The track is shaping into one of the fastest-climbing crossover hits of his career. After just 14 weeks on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, "Seduction" resides at No. 8, and claims the No. 7 rung on the Hot 100. The song's clever, retro-themed video is reaping its share of attention on the usual video channels and, perhaps more important, is a massive viral hit on YouTube. The heat the single has generated pushed the release date for Snoop's new Doggy Style/Geffen/Interscope album, "Ego Trippin'," up from May to March 11.
Also present on that King segment was Snoop's charisma and charm. When King ordered an "Arnold Palmer" -- a mix of lemonade and iced tea named for the golfer who drank it -- Snoop immediately coined "The Tiger Woods" (lemonade and water). And when King was shuffled off by his handlers, Snoop eyed the talk show host's substantial leftovers and asked for -- what else? -- a doggy bag.
"Larry is live, down to earth," Snoop says. "A lot of people were like, 'This is going to be awkward: an old white guy and this young black man.' But it felt natural, like we've known each other 40 to 50 years. I get with people, do s--t with people. I don't categorize anyone, so everyone feels comfortable with me."
Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Broadus) has been full of surprises during his 15-year transition from gangsta rapper to lovable mainstream artist. That he's been able to tweak and have fun with rap's tough-guy image without losing street or mainstream credibility -- despite well-publicized run-ins with the law over weapons and drugs -- is a singular accomplishment.
Snoop attributes his career evolution to simply being a smart "PIMP": Player Into Making Progress.
"That is what that word has always meant to me," the Long Beach, Calif., native says in his signature drawl. "You may think it's a man sending a woman to a corner or someone taking something from someone else. That's the misconception. You've got to know how to pimp the game and not get pimped. Use situations to your advantage and flip the script like I did."
Seated at a small table in a homey apartment above the legendary Hollywood corner of Sunset and Vine, Snoop Dogg is visibly tired. The rapper's hair flies loose in Gene Wilder-esque fashion, and he confirms that the album is indeed complete. "That's why I look like this, a mad scientist," he says with a short laugh.
But Snoop grows more animated when the discussion turns to artistic longevity and the creative impetus behind the album. Drawing inspiration from such musical mainstays as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, Snoop says it was time for him to go outside the box.
"I'm the nicest rapper in the world," he quietly declares. "But at the same time I've got that bad boy persona, and I didn't really want to approach it like that this time. I wanted to make a record that felt good the whole way through as opposed to trying to make a record that was so gangsta, so hard or so 'hood-appealing. I looked at people before me to see how they went through different decades with their music. Curtis and Marvin lasted, making their same kind of music even after disco came in and then played out. With my career lasting this long, I had to start looking at the changes in music and the changes in me, seeing what's needed to stay here."
Bumping into Teddy Riley -- former Blackstreet frontman and guru of new jack swing, a hybrid of hip-hop and R&B -- while both were saluted during VH1's 2007 Hip-Hop Honors, Snoop says he felt that God was telling him that he "needed to work with this guy." Joining forces with DJ Quik, Snoop and Riley executive-produced the album as the new production team QDT (Quik Dogg Teddy), with collaborative assists from Terrace Martin, Shawty Redd, the Neptunes, Khao and Whitey Ford (aka Everlast), among others.
The album comprises 21 tracks with just two featured rappers, according to Snoop: Too Short and Mr. Fab. Otherwise, it's a more musical Snoop this time, aided by such guests as Raphael Saadiq, Charlie Wilson and his background singer Tone. Snoop also sings a cover of the Time's 1981 R&B top 10 hit "Cool."
Ted Chung, president of Doggy Style Records and Snoopadelic Films, says he and Snoop took a different approach to the recording of the album.
"The usual process is, we get a track, Snoop rhymes over it and it's sent back for mixing," Chung says. "This time a lot of the tracks were replayed with live bass, keyboard, strings, guitars; a full choir was even added on a song. We spent more time in the studio developing this record than we've done before, listening to mixes over and over again."
R&B isn't the only genre Snoop channels. He focuses on his love of country music on the Whitey Ford-written and -produced "My Medicine," the guitar sound of which mirrors that of country pioneer Johnny Cash.
"If you take your time to listen to it, country music is very similar to rap," Snoop says. "Johnny Cash is the one who stood out to me. I love his style, his swag, the songs he made."
Snoop points out that he's "not trying to be a real R&B singer, holding notes and going for dramatic moments. It's just great songs with good melodies that I can hold, but it's still within the world of Snoop Dogg," he says. "I always stay Snoop Dogg regardless of any change."
He continues softly, "I just want to be the Marvin Gaye of rap. That timeless voice you love hearing all the time on epic songs. I done made you party my whole career. Now I want to see if I can get you to cry."