For his first release on Dr. Dre’s label, .Paak proves to be something of a gravitational force, buzzing at the center of a swirl of crazed imagery, enlaced genres and high-profile collaborations. On this, his homecoming album, newfound fame and status take .Paak in new directions.
The journey so far for Anderson .Paak begins in Oxnard and ends in Oxnard. His new album is named after his place of birth and, from then to now, it has been a wild ride for the thirty-two-year-old rapper.
A conquering hero
Having grown up in a broken home, he has two distinct memories of his father: first when he was arrested for domestic abuse when .Paak was seven and then, years later, when he lay in a funeral casket. But music was a near-constant presence for the young man who cultivated a sense of rhythm by playing the drums in a local church.
Later, .Paak struggled for years to break into the L.A. hip-hop scene, teaching music to earn his keep and working on a marijuana farm in Santa Barbara. He has described several instances over this period where he came very close to quitting music altogether, especially during a short spell of homelessness with his wife and infant son.
As a result, the release of Oxnard might feel like a fairytale ending for the 12th grader who remembers having “visions” of “Killing shit with Doc Dre” on “Who R U?” A decade and a half later, that is exactly what he’s doing on the Aftermath Entertainment label. Since featuring on six tracks from Dre’s third studio album, Compton, back in 2015, the rap luminary has acted as something of a mentor for .Paak, helping to push him well into the mainstream. On their relationship, .Paak said they’re “two perfectionists who just won’t stop working on a project.”
Oxnard is their first full effort together, with Dre acting as executive producer. It concludes .Paak’s so-called beach trilogy (following Venice and Malibu) and he has described it as a “welcome home.” He must feel like a conquering hero.
However, you won’t find much catharsis in Oxnard. Instead of sounding like a neat round-off to a three-act structure, the album pushes .Paak’s sound into new areas, forming another break-neck bend on his journey as an artist.
Anderson .Paak is getting murkier
“The Chase,” the album’s first track, kicks things off in a fitting way, with the sound of seagulls and foamy waves leading us into Kadhja Bonet’s vocals. She is the least experienced featured artist on Oxnard, having only released two albums since 2016 (The Visitor, Childqueen), but her voice provides a breezy, ethereal counterbalance to .Paak’s raspy flow. They combine over a skittering snare, mystical flights of flute and trickling wind chimes. But this opener is as serene as things will get going forward.
The basis for .Paak’s appeal was largely formed through the critically-acclaimed Malibu and the intricate, sunny groove of his live shows (particularly the highly successful 2016 Tiny Desk session). He has been thought of as a free-ranging, silky-smooth polymath (drummer-singer-rapper) with a dry humor and a laid-back, soulful delivery. It is fun to listen to Anderson .Paak – and that hasn’t changed. But on Oxnard, the soft groove we have come to expect is interlaced with more hyperactive, fractious themes, making the overall sound murkier than Paak’s previous offerings.
Track number two, “Headlow,” is more characteristic of the album’s tone. Its title is literal, describing a sex-act that occurs throughout the song. It ushers in a theme that proves to be overarching on Oxnard; sexual escapades pulled through the prism of .Paak’s languorousness. At the end of the song, the car they’re in collides with another and the music cuts. We hear .Paak telling her to “just keep goin” – it is difficult to bask in his velvety tone because the inherent smoothness of his previous work has gone.
“Tints” follows, one of the best songs on the album, featuring Kendrick Lamar in a track about the luxury/necessity of tinted windows once you achieve a certain lifestyle. The sound harks back to .Paak’s sometime sunny disposition, cruising along at mid-tempo amongst funky guitar and spacey synths. “Paparazzi wanna shoot ya (shoot ya)” is a lyric that demonstrates the new place .Paak comes from. The days of Malibu, where .Paak wonders what he’s “supposed to do” after someone steals his liquor at a party (on “Come Down”) seem like a distant memory.
“Who R U?” and “6 Summers” pull Oxnard into darker areas that are more appropriate for the album’s October release. .Paak’s flow shifts gears, at times sounding reminiscent of Childish Gambino’s pace on “Sweatpants.” Both give off raunchy and decadent vibes amongst hyperactive ad-libs that evoke more of a debauched party than a chill R&B lounge. .Paak flips through themes like Trump, school shootings and police violence without stopping to take a breath. It feels like someone skipping channels on a high-resolution screen, leaving the listener disorientated in the afterglow.
The man of the hour
Indeed, the album comes at a point where .Paak is the man of the hour in mainstream hip-hop circles, teetering on the edge of superstardom and the surreal energy that must come with it. It seems like everyone wants a piece of the action, with artists like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, BJ The Chicago Kid and Pusha T featuring on the album. But instead of being overshadowed by these high-profile stars, .Paak stands tall at the center, with collaborators orbiting around him, providing welcome tonal shifts at key intervals.
Oxnard is at its best when these voices come in, especially Pusha T on “Brother’s Keeper” and Q-Tip on “Cheers” (as well as the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar and Kadhja Bonet). Jazzier beats and more colorful bass lines enter the mix towards the end of the album, mashing together rap and funk in a way that comes naturally to .Paak.
Overall, Oxnard is a solid continuation from the Californian rapper. But it might not be the album many expected from him. Those who were anticipating a logical maturation in .Paak’s sound will be surprised to find themselves driven into darker and lustier territory. Instead of coming full circle, it veers off in a new direction.
Anderson .Paak – Oxnard [Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLP]