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Anderson .Paak Remains Great, Even If ‘Oxnard’ Is Only Good

The singer’s major-label debut may not quite embody his full potential, but he’s still figuring out how far he can go

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Most of the reviews you can find about Dr. Dre’s 2015 album, Compton, agree that it delivers on 16 years of Detox anticipation. Perhaps because it was an Apple exclusive and is maybe not as good as initially received, however, it’s now largely discussed as a springboard for singer-songwriter Anderson .Paak. On the strength of six soulful, sinewy features, .Paak was put on the path to being featured on NBA on TNT promos. Possessing a distinctive septum piercing and a Seussian grin, .Paak also has, as it’s often been described, the rasp. His voice is like Freddie Jackson’s if it began each day with a carton of cigarettes, followed by 1,000 muscle-ups on the local playground jungle gym. That makes .Paak’s music seem laboring, but it also makes it seem as if he could fly. At the time, Consequence of Sound dubbed .Paak the “soul” of Dre’s project. Music critic Jeff Weiss, who profiled .Paak soon after Compton’s release, characterized the singer’s contributions as the “arteries” of Dr. Dre’s final West Coast dispatch.

.Paak’s newest album, Oxnard — executive-produced by Dre — finds the 32-year-old artist actually famous, established, and fancy-free. By the end of the second song, “Headlow,” .Paak is both indecent and at fault for a car accident — the result of getting pleasured in a moving vehicle and rear-ending somebody.

In a broad sense, .Paak (neé Brandon Paak Anderson, formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy) was ready to make the most of his Compton signal boost, and has since won himself one of the highest approval ratings in contemporary hip-hop and R&B. He’s cool in that his goofiness works for him, and he’s charming enough to not be drawn and quartered for using “bitch” as a term of endearment. Crucially, he also makes good music. Having in 2014 independently put out Venice, the first album in his “beach series,” .Paak dropped the well-reviewed follow-up Malibu in 2016. This very site called it one of the albums of that year, “a sprawling album of New Age, genre-fluid soul.”

Oxnard, the third album in the trilogy, and .Paak’s first on Aftermath, was officially released Friday, after leaking midday Thursday to somewhat tempered expectations. It may have been that “Tints” — an easy, sunny, rubbery ditty featuring Kendrick Lamar — shouldn’t have been released in October just as the weather was about to turn for the year. The second single, “Who R U?” is the ostensible rap single; chantable, with knocking, off-kilter drums featuring rapping that is nowhere close to his most inspired nor even energetic. On that note, the second verse on “Bubblin” (the single that didn’t make the album) springs to mind: .Paak brags about getting extra fries and blowing a paycheck at the Ferragamo store. In triplets:

RIP the times that I was broke, after life 911 Porsche
Matte black lookin’ CLEEEEEEEEAN,
Dead prezis in the envelope

The Calmatic-directed video depicts a giddy .Paak running around Los Angeles, tailed by a broken ATM spitting out infinite amounts of money. “Yes Lawd!” has progressed from exclamation, to catchphrase, to project title, and accordingly, .Paak can have more expensive kinds of fun now. This is its own kind of creative hurdle for the native of Oxnard, California, whose earlier work was largely defined and informed by perseverance, sleepless nights, and making do, all of which have a way of narrowing focus. Now, there’s room to try a protest song. “6 Summers,” the fifth song on Oxnard, begins with “Trump’s got a love child/and I hope that bitch is buckwild.” To close out the album, on “Left To Right,” .Paak makes the curious decision to stuff one arm into a bunchy Jamaican patois. There’s a still in the “Bubblin” video of .Paak with six arms, trying everything because he can now afford it. It’s tough not to think of it as an epigram for the album, whereupon .Paak tries things he’s plenty capable of, but not necessarily the best at.

Oxnard largely comes together on its back half. “Smile/Petty” is a funky, jelly-limbed champagne room confessional about a jilted lover who put bleach into .Paak’s laundry and then, for good measure, heaped all of his shit out in the street. (Allegedly, these things actually happened to .Paak’s guitar player.) “Mansa Musa” never really coalesces into anything more than a lyrical exercise — an opportunity for a weathered, 53-year-old Dre who “made a billion off my bullshit” to stretch his legs. The earlier, detailed road-head skit was an awkward reminder that .Paak fucks, but his horniness is more artfully and enjoyably communicated through slick numbers like “Sweet Chick” (assisted by an inspired BJ The Chicago Kid) and “Anywhere,” as in do it anywhere (buoyed by an immortal Snoop Dogg). “Trippy” is a would-be continuation of J. Cole’s run of stellar 2018 features — which includes Jay Rock’s “OSOM” and Moneybagg Yo’s “Say Na” — except here Cole comes in two notches too high in volume, not quite reading the hazy, love-besotted mood of the song.

I want to stress that Oxnard, with producers like .Paak himself, Dre, Om’Mas Keith, 9th Wonder, and Q-Tip, sounds great. Tip also raps on the song he produced, “Cheers,” which, out of the album’s 14 songs, will likely end up with the most referrals. It regards still being here as something to celebrate, and Tip matches both the emotional and vocal pitch of .Paak, as the latter mulls over past hardship and heartache. “Music business movin’ too fast with me,” .Paak rasps, “wishin’ I still had Mac with me.”

I submit that “Brother’s Keeper” is the most rideable song here, a gritty street record that borrows its guitar licks from Al Green’s “Love And Happiness,” and features a very at-home Pusha-T (who figured in a 2014 CNN segment of the same name). The song — in which .Paak sells the mood and a costar paints in the detail — recalls .Paak’s work on Dre’s “All in a Day’s Work,” or Rapsody’s “OooWee,” or Schoolboy Q’s “Blank Face.” It’s also enough to make you think that maybe .Paak is more of a new-age Nate Dogg than the second coming of James Brown that he seemed he could be. Would that be so bad?