What will you remember as the sound of 2016? Several significant cultural deaths have forced us to check the rearview, while the results of last week’s election demand a reckoning with an unknown future. How do you capture that in-between-eras state of flux in music? There are a number of right answers, but when I close my eyes, I hear the sound of past and future converging in all the right ways. I hear the voice of Anderson .Paak.
If you’re an American on the grid, it would’ve been difficult to avoid .Paak’s music in 2016. Exactly two weeks into the new year, .Paak released Malibu, a sprawling album of New Age, genre-fluid soul that still holds up as one of the best releases of 2016; he, together with L.A. producer Knxwledge, released another album, Yes Lawd!, under the name NxWorries; his songs soundtrack TNT’s NBA coverage and commercials for Google phones and Apple Music. Three years ago, long before his breakthrough, .Paak tweeted that he could see himself playing music on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Last month, he did; he was the opener for the L.A. leg of Beyoncé’s Formation Tour; he’s been featured on more than a dozen projects this year alone, ranging from the high profile (A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Macklemore, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller) to the hyper-regional (Like, a member of SoCal-based rap group Pac Div; Milwaukee producer Thane) and everything in between (Kaytranada’s “Glowed Up” and Domo Genesis’s “Dapper” are the best songs on their respective albums; .Paak was featured on both).
“In the back of my head, I wanted to be this dude that could be in the center of the L.A. scene. How dope would it be if I did the most underground … and the most mainstream,” .Paak told the Los Angeles Times in March. “I wanted to have tentacles to everything. … I wanted to be a common thread.”
He’s seized that opportunity; the breadth of his collaborations speak volumes. But to be that common thread, you first have to know what it means to unravel. .Paak has said that when he was around 7 years old, he saw his father, who had issues with substance abuse, beat his mother bloody in the street. In his late teens, he worked late hours at a community center for the developmentally disabled. When music wasn’t working out, he took up culinary school for an instant in hopes of finding stability in a kitchen; when that hit a dead end, he and a member of his band the Free Nationals found themselves working on a marijuana farm, eventually stealing several pounds here and there to sell on the side. He lost the job, and for a time, he, his wife, and his son drifted in and out of homelessness. .Paak has lived a long 30 years, and in his music, those moments manifest in ways you would and wouldn’t expect. His voice is post-dread, which can often be indistinguishable from joy. It’s the sound of the grit, the smirking, the shrieking, the consternation that comes with clinging to innocence in the face of its demise.
Along with Chance and D.R.A.M., .Paak has helped usher in a new wave of kaleidoscopic hip-hop, buoyant and triumphant, unmoored to the dour, dystopic nihilism that has colored the past five years of rap trends.
“Everybody either wants to sound like Drake or wants an underwater R&B or dark, weird sound,” .Paak told the L.A. Times. In that respect, .Paak can be seen as a modern warrior of what the late critic Albert Murray understood as the blues idiom: “an attitude of affirmation in the face of difficulty, of improvisation in the face of challenge. It means you acknowledge that life is a low-down dirty shame yet confront that fact with perseverance, with humor, and, above all, with elegance.”
It helps that .Paak is funny. Yes Lawd! has a blues heart, and as such, there are just as many winking moments as there are little couplets of personal distress. “H.A.N.” finds itself at that intersection. It is at once a pithy warning about the burdens that come with newfound fame and name recognition, and the spiritual successor to “Jealous Guy,” the absurd mock ballad that closes Mase’s essential Harlem World from 1997 (except, you know, “H.A.N.” is almost four minutes shorter).
.Paak’s versatility is part of why he’s become one of the busiest artists in hip-hop, but calling him a chameleon doesn’t quite get at how he embeds within a song. “I have a clear vision for what I want. What I’m doing is displaying range,” .Paak said in 2014. “What I want to do is really represent this DIY generation of artists that [aren’t] afraid of their range. … I’m the artist that speaks to that fan who listens to Donald [Byrd] and Young Thug. I want to take people on a listening experience and get people to trust that they’re going to hear something incredible.”
While .Paak prides himself in finding as many new collaborators as he can, that range that he speaks of apparently exists even in projects with frequent collaborators. .Paak and Schoolboy Q have worked together multiple times this year, including “Am I Wrong” off of Malibu, and “Torch” off of the Blank Face LP. One is a breezy, 5 p.m. sunset joyride on the 10; the other is a brooding introduction to hell. In the former, Schoolboy Q is rapping things like, “I stare at you in the eyes and spin you on your toes”; in the latter, he’s squawking, “Met the devil in disguise, look through my motherfuckin’ eyes.” The two songs are sonic opposites, but .Paak’s voice holds them in the same continuum. It’s a voice with its own worldview. It has a patina that canvases anything it comes in contact with.
In 2016, .Paak has entered the Kendrick zone — you attach him to a song knowing what he has the power to summon, and you do so knowing full well that you’ve probably forfeited the song to him. “Torch,” Blank Face LP’s album opener, begins with .Paak harmonizing with what sounds like a legion of little demons in the image of Schoolboy Q, droning the words “blank face.” The first full line of the song — of the album — doesn’t go to Q, but to .Paak.
“Trade the noise for a piece of divine,” he sings.
Paralysis is no form of resistance. Yet there I was late at night over the weekend, sitting up in my bed in pitch darkness, weary from a day spent watching protests from afar. I was passively exposing myself to what was to come, to what has already begun, to connecting dots and recognizing patterns, to succumbing to the dispiriting realities and falsehoods of the world. I was listening to We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest’s new album, released Friday, their first in 18 years — an album that, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in 2014, is a diamond born out of thin air, seemingly forged from the pressure of our immediate cultural climate. It’s necessary and galvanizing. It incites and tears into fresh wounds. It dips into the warmth of nostalgia, like we’re bringing ’88 back. It’s an example of what good can be achieved with a wide net of collaboration.
One of the more heartening developments on the album is the emergence of Jarobi White’s voice, more than 25 years since we last heard him with Tribe. Like .Paak, Jarobi left music to enroll in culinary school; unlike .Paak, not only did Jarobi last longer than a couple of weeks, he’d go on to become a chef who has collaborated with and been praised by the likes of Marcus Samuelsson and Roy Choi. Despite this whole other life away from ATCQ, Q-Tip had called him “the spirit of the group,” and on We Got It From Here, he becomes corporeal. On one of the final tracks of the album, “Movin’ Backwards,” Jarobi opens with a wish. “I hope my legendary style of rap lives on,” blissfully ignorant of the fact that most fans hardly ever heard him rap on record. (Jarobi’s last appearance on a Tribe album was their 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and even then, he never laid a verse.) Over the churning, squelching guitar of “Movin’ Backwards,” Jarobi boasts in perpetual motion, and then, in an instant, stops. The entire album is a wave of familiarity, of reconciliation, of pointed anger — but in that instant, with everything slowed, the song is ceded to a familiar voice that would affirm the primacy of the record. This is 2016, and who better to tether this sound to these times? “I spun around without a care,” .Paak sings. “When I stopped, I felt lost.”
His voice rang like a conscience, like a soothsaying response to my worries: The paralysis won’t last forever. As I sat in darkness, drifting out of consciousness, I began to repeat the mantra at the end of the song. I don’t want to move backwards, no. Next thing I knew, it was a new day.