Any fan of Anderson .Paak knows that despite revered, Grammy-nominated albums like his breakout 2016 album Malibu and his 2019 LP Ventura, you haven’t truly experienced his music until you’ve seen him live. When he’s performing with his band the Free Nationals, he’s truly in his element: his vocals are electric, he easily transitions from belting on the microphone at front stage to delivering drum solos in the back, and you can see his wide, toothy smile from anywhere in the audience. And whenever the Oxnard, Calif. native takes the stage, he never forgets the life circumstances he’s escaped and survived.
Over the next week, the multitalented musician is teaming with Modelo and the International Rescue Committee for their Fighting Chance concert series. .Paak will perform in three benefit shows in San Francisco (Nov. 13), Atlanta (Nov. 15), and Brooklyn (Nov. 17) to aid refugees, immigrants, and people in need – all issues that the singer/rapper has personal connection with. VIBE spoke to Anderson .Paak about homelessness, music’s greatest beggers, criticism of his album Oxnard, and new music with Chance The Rapper and the Free Nationals.
VIBE: Tell me about this new partnership with Modelo.
Anderson .Paak: Really excited to be partnering with Modelo and International Rescue Committee. Modelo and the IRC are providing a fighting chance for immigrants, for refugees and Americans, so they can be great out here when it comes to all over the world. I’m happy to be linking up with them because I share a similar story. There was a time when I didn’t have much and I didn’t have a place to stay, and all I wanted to do was the music but I didn’t have the resources. A lot of people lended a hand so that I could have that bridge, and I see Modelo is trying to do the same. So I’m hyped about what we’re doing with these benefit shows – one in Brooklyn, one in Atlanta, one in San Francisco – for the cause.
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What’s the backstory behind when you were homeless?
Right when my wife was pregnant with my first son, Soul, I was doing cover gigs, gigs here and there, playing for other artists. I was working on weed farms and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Right when that happened, I wanted to fully commit to the music thing. But at the same time, that’s when I moved out of my sister’s spot, she couldn’t afford to have us there anymore. It was a key time where I was floating around, didn’t have a spot to stay. We were finishing up the first project, and I was working with people like Sa-Ra, really working closely with my boy Shafiq Husayn, and working closely with my boy Dumbfoundead. These are people who offered up their couches, their studios, their places to me and my family while I got things together. It was vital, it helped me get to the next phase of my career. If I didn’t have that, I probably would’ve devoted my energy to making ends meet, and Lord knows what kind of things you can get into when you’re trying to make money. But I got to focus on my passion, and everything followed after that.
Sitting down with Modelo, I got to talk to some of the people they’re working with. Hearing their stories, I saw that common thread and I related to that. Even for someone coming from Mexico, someone coming from Africa, I could see people being out there and not having resources. To have any sort of help is important and makes a difference.
Many people reading this may not have dealt with homelessness personally. What do you think is something about homelessness that people can’t truly understand until they’ve been there?
Not everybody starts off homeless. You eventually get to that place. Someone may have a passion. One thing leads to another, he doesn’t have the resources, and he doesn’t have someone to help him get out of that hole. Anything can happen. People get removed and they get numb to the fact and forget that so easily that could be them. Or if they want to start something in a whole different territory, but they don’t have any family out there or nothing. A lot of people can relate to that. I think people being numb to that is where the problem is. They think they can’t relate because they see someone who’s literally homeless in the street. But it’s getting away from that. It’s being able to connect with that person and knowing that if you have something to offer, then there’s no reason not to offer that up because you get what you give. They’re at that point of homelessness, and that’s when people go towards acts of crime to help feed themselves. It doesn’t have to get to that point.
Has growing up in California given more perspective when it comes to immigrants?
Absolutely. It’s a part of my whole story, even going back from my mom being from Korea, adopted by black Americans who were out here in the ‘50s. She had no clue of her original family. She starts her own produce business, which is built on immigrants, Mexican workers who are going out there and making millions for companies that have to have their produce all the time. That’s what I came up on. That’s my moms. Then meeting my wife, she comes out here and she wants to be a musician, so she has to get residency permits and she comes out here with no family, she meets me and we start a family. That brings me back to my culture that I never knew. So it’s incredible, very near and dear.
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On Ventura, the song “Come Home,” you said, “no one even begs anymore.” Who are the all-time greatest beggers in music?
Oooh, the all-time greatest beggers. You’ve got Lenny Williams. “Oooh, oh oh oh oh.” K-Ci and JoJo? “Baby I want you back.” You’ve got groups: Boyz II Men, The Delfonics, The Temptations, Dru Hill. Even Bruno, he gets in his begging bag, catching grenades for girls and stuff. He’s probably the biggest one, he topped the charts with that one. (laughs)
I was thinking of Keith Sweat. He be begging, man.
(imitates Keith Sweat singing “Twisted”) “Baby baby, I know!”
If you had to make a Mount Rushmore of R&B and soul singers, who would be on it?
I’d do Stevie Wonder, I’d do Ray Charles. I’d do Prince. I’d do Aretha Franklin. Sh*t! It’s just four? (revisits the list) Yeah, everybody’s represented.
You had a really strong start with your first several albums. Malibu, Venice, NxWorries. Oxnard wasn’t as well received by critics. Did that criticism impact you while making Ventura?
Says who?! Nah, it was good. It was part of the grand scheme of things. People have their expectations that I would never be able to reach after Malibu, and it’s a blessing to be able to say that. I never thought Malibu would be received the way it was. It took us all around the world, it changed our lives. Going into the next project was rough because like, we’re touring now, I’m always making music but I’m making the music I want to do and I’m not necessarily trying to let the fans dictate where I go. As an artist, I have to figure out how I’m going to take them with me; that was the point of the beaches thing. But these different things were happening in my life at the same time as Oxnard. I never was thinking about first week sales or being on Billboard; all these things were kind of new. This was my first debut with Dre where all these things were becoming factors now. I thought it was great. It gave me something else to achieve. But I knew it was going to be this kind of thing where, “he’ll never be able to live up to (the previous album),” I could feel that energy. So I was like, I’m going to make sure I have two albums ready because Kanye and all these dudes have their big album and everyone wants to put them in this box. At that point, as an artist, there’s a big thing you have to do where you go against the grain. F**k em. Some people just fall in and see what they’re good at, and repeat it. Some people can do that, but I’m not really like that. I like to do different things.
I did two albums: I’m going to have Oxnard, that’s what I wanted to do. I’m the same man, new car, having fun, action-packed. I’m really working with Dre, not just talking; Dre’s involved in everything from the production to the mix to the art. I’m going to have another album that I feel like is a mix of where I should be going and what people want from me. If I have to do something in the parameter of making it beautiful and something I can play with the Obamas, my mom, with the hood people, and the nerd people, I’m going to have it ready to go, but I want to be able to do these at the same time. That didn’t become clear to me until I was making Oxnard and working so closely with Dre. I need to have this ready as well, and it’s going to be a perfect balance.
I also wasn’t used to taking criticism, really. You put out stuff, and people love everything you put out. Then you try to do something different. People were taking jabs at it. Like, wow. But at the same time, it was my biggest Billboard charting joint. (Ed. note: Oxnard debuted at no. 11 on the Billboard 200, his highest at that time of his career; his follow-up, Ventura, debuted at no. 10.) My biggest first week ever. You can’t have one without the other, I realized. That was a big learning experience, too. If they hate, let them hate and let the money pile up, like 50 Cent said.
I actually enjoyed Oxnard, but I still had that question.
It’s crazy how a handful of people can skew an artist. Artists are so close to their fan base now than ever before. There’s pros and cons with that. If people don’t like it, that makes artists feel like it’s complete trash. A lot of people still f**k with it, and some people don’t. That was my first album where I had that energy, where people felt so passionate on either side. That’s striking a nerve.
You were recently on Rhythm + Flow with Chance The Rapper. What was that experience like? Also, I read that you guys were working on other records aside from the show. When can we hear those records?
Rhythm + Flow was fun, to be in front of hungry musicians and young artists. I always love doing that. They were taking advice, they were all really respectful, and it made me appreciative that I can have a career like this where people even see me as worthy of giving advice. Chance, we got a lot of records, but he’s obsessed with video games and stuff. I hope he puts some of that stuff out sometime. But if he keeps inviting me to Netflix, I’m there, too. I’m still pissed I didn’t get to meet Cardi that day. It was fun experiencing that with the new kids out there.
You said that hopefully Chance can put out that music you guys made. Why can’t you?
He better! But I’ve got enough problems. I’m putting out the Free Nationals [album]. They’re a pain in the a**, but they’ve got some great music. You would never think individuals as rowdy as them would put out such sophisticated music, but that’s the beauty of it, it’s a contrast. We’re gearing up for that
What’s the story behind the Free Nationals?
They’ve been my band since day one. The core of it was me, Jose Rios, and Ron Tnava Avant. We used to play cover gigs, then they started playing my original music, and the band started to grow from there with Kelsey Gonzalez, Callum Connor. They’ve been part of my production since Venice, since before that. Now they’ve ventured off and wrote their own album together, and some great artists have been involved with it: Syd, my brother Mac Miller, Kadhja Bonet, they dropped a single with J.I.D. It’s dope man, they’re finally done with the project so I’m excited to be able to help with it.
How did you figure out who you wanted in the band and settle upon a group you were happy with?
There was a time where all of us were just coming up and playing together. Before we were doing big shows we just liked to be around each other, link up and play. No one had to tell us to link, we just would do it all the time. That’s how you kind of know. Years go by, and it’s just the same dudes. There were times where [multiple members would say], “we’re going to kick this [member] out, we hate him.” It never happened, we just stuck with each other. Those are your bros. We meet a lot of bands that we admire, like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Earth Wind and Fire, and these bands are still playing and really doing it. They still talk to each other. You meet them backstage, and everybody seems to be chill. That’s a beautiful thing to have in your career. There aren’t many bands anymore. Not many bands that are playing instruments, everybody pushes bands to the back. So it’s dope to be a part of this wave that’s pushing toward people with instruments and being a band.