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Courtesy of Roc Nation

VIBE’s Staff Reviews JAY-Z’s Album, ‘4:44’

After weeks of trying to decipher the meaning behind the peach posters with four characters stamped in a large black typeface, 06.30.17 finally arrived with the musical gift of JAY-Z's 13th studio album, <em>4:44</em>. Once the clock struck midnight, all of the anticipation seeped out of headphones and speakers and into the eager ears of Hov fans. But what came to light was not at all what was expected from the rapper turned entrepreneur turned family man.

After closely listening to Mr. Carter's lyrical content and 10-track project of honesty, five VIBE editors and writers share their thoughts on the sonically rich No I.D.-produced project that many hip-hop fans have been vibing to since its release.  Dig in down below.

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Desire Thompson, Associate News Editor

JAY-Z’s career has lasted as long as the existence of millennials. In that lengthy time frame, the Brooklyn native has endured family hardships and a rap career highlighting his escape from poverty through the drug game. His tales have allowed him to carve a persona that became the standard in hip hop. Four years after Magna Carta Holy Grail, Mr. Carter has laid out his demons on 4:44, a diary of tingling proportions that reminds never to idolize your heroes. A vulnerable and at times, a broken JAY is heard on wax taking accountability for his actions thought to be genius by his former self.

With No I.D. as his proverbial outlet for the rap feels, Shawn Carter steps up to the plate to question the man so many embody (Drake, J.Cole, Meek Mill) and breaks him into pieces. From “Kill Jay Z” to “Family Feud,” the rapper confesses to being the villain in his biggest scandals (Solange, Lance “Un” Rivera) while in an odd way, finding sympathetic refuge from fans. He also expresses need to think ahead, preferably when it comes to his criticized art collection on “The Story of O.J.” One “Legacy,” his wealth becomes another episode in the 13th season finale of his life, providing him financial freedom.

No longer the “guy you can lie to,” JAY’s 10-track opus hits every cerebral chamber. “Smile” is for the soul (along with his mother’s touching spoken-word outro) while “Bam” feeds the ego. “4:44” leaves us debating the ages of male maturity and “Family Feud” gives the Instagram generation lyrics and “super facts” to praise (or criticize). His apologies are for his wife Beyonce and his children, who will bear the burden of learning about their father from two perspectives–his POV and the Internet’s.

Looking ahead has always been JAY’s strongest superpower– which is why he goes back to heal wounds that could continue to dampen his future. With strong samples from Nina Simone, Sister Nancy, The Fugees, Raekwon and a mix of raw and off the cuff beats, JAY finds solace while watching the rap game from the VIP section. It’s the battle between his past and the future that will always haunt him, as he notes on “Marcy Me.” “When Denzel was blottin’ carpet, I’ll pack a nine millimeter when Slick Rick made Mona Lisa,” he recalls. “When Lisa Bonet was Beyoncé of her day, I had divas y’all/ Think I just popped up in this b**ch like a fetus? Nah.”

There are hints that this could be the rapper’s final album when listening to the HOV-centered “Bam,” but at least he’s confessed to truths through music’s most machismo genre. Whether you forgive JAY-Z is your call. In the end, JAY, one of the greatest rappers of our time, has forgiven himself.

Mark Braboy, Contributing Writer

For a very, very long time, JAY-Z has been wearing a diamond-studded, yet very tightly worn mask. That mask has hidden the vulnerability, honesty, and the layered humility of the man named Shawn Carter. And while that mask has slowly been shed since at least The Blueprint, his “face” has finally been unveiled in the form of 4:44.  Hov has given us a body of work where he is unflinchingly poignant and all the way real about not just his personal life and transgressions, but also what it means to be a revolutionary black entrepreneur in the music business while still standing on the side of the oppressed, and still being the God emcee (because…”Bam”).

Liberation screams throughout the entire album in multiple facets whether we our liberating ourselves from our sins of dishonesty and infidelity (“4:44”), the false ideas of what it means to be black and elite (“The Story of O.J”), or breaking free of societal boxes while celebrating and living in one’s truth (“Smile”). Thanks to the scoring done by Chi-Town’s own No I.D.,  4:44 turned out to be a balanced, sophisticated and well-put together package. He shows his growth without being obnoxiously pretentious with his riches like the in Kingdom Come and some parts of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Sure, he flexes (because what’s a Jay album without a little bit of that) but it feels more constructive than some of his last efforts.

This album will forever stand the test of time among both Hov’s greatest masterpieces and hip-hop’s most legendary albums for two sole reasons. One, this album marks the complete evolution of JAY-Z from a musical and personal standpoint. He lyrically outclasses himself throughout the album and challenges himself by adding far more emotional depth than he’s ever done. And two, the musical chemistry between Jay and No I.D. is surreal. It’s the kind that can be seen nowadays among the pairings of Metro Boomin and Gucci Mane or MikeWillMadeIt and Rae Sremmurd. Together, the two have put together a masterpiece that will grow with us like fine wine. With a treasure trove of knowledge and confessions, the Michael Corleone of rap has permanently marked his place in music industry history. Hip-Hop needed this album and after processing this album multiple times, I’m calling it what is. A classic.

Marjua Estevez, Senior Editor

As someone who's been both a victim and culprit of infidelity, I imagine there were levels of difficulties that JAY-Z encountered while recording his long-awaited "Lemonade response." However, I'd be remiss without saying I find some of his most honest one-liners problematic. Words like "I apologize, often womanize/ took for my child to be born to see through a woman's eyes" reeks of what stems from toxic masculinity and, thusly, what we know as patriarchy. Why wasn't Beyoncé enough? Where is the intuitiveness to see women as human, with or without a child? Still, I honor JAY's honesty and readiness to own all of his truths—provided these are really his truths and not just poetic license or material.

I dig this JAY-Z far more than the human he's been in previous eras. I'm not as great at separating the man from the artist as most, however great a prodigy Shawn Carter is in hip-hop culture. But I again would be remiss if I did not sing some of his praises for the 10-track opus he calls 4:44. I appreciate him turning a lens on topics like slavery, colorism, black entrepreneurship, investment, pro-blackness and the idea of financial freedom while paying it forward. There's a sense of privilege, yes, but the jewel for me was him planting that seed that will, in turn, create dialogue around those ideas with his core audience, which spans generations of black and brown communities.

I mostly appreciate JAY's vulnerability, what I interpreted as a softness pouring from his chest in honor of the woman he nearly broke. I don't like to give cookies for things I think should just be, but I do know what it's like to "suck at love." In the story of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, two people chose to return to the groove. That dance that takes years to perfect. And that's what I'm applauding above anything else.

Tony Centeno, Contributing Writer

As soon as he said "Cry Jay Z” on “Kill Jay Z,” I took that moment of foreshadowing as a warning that his 13th studio album would be more emotional and transparent than anything he's ever made. As a longtime fan of the Brooklyn phenom, I’ve worn out all three Blueprints, his “final LP” The Black Album and, of course, his debut album Reasonable Doubt. Yet, 4:44 is not just an album I can play without skipping a beat. It stands as the only album from his extensive catalog that I’ll continue to learn from for years to come.

4:44 exposes the underlying emotions people possess and, like most alpha men, tend to forget. JAY exposes his issues with Prince's legal team in "Caught Their Eyes," yet flashes a big "Smile" as he embraces his mother’s sexual orientation. He shines a bright, golden light on black excellence on "Legacy," and deals with the struggles of racism in America in "The Story of O.J." After flexing his stance on rising social injustice and LGBT rights in America, Hov starts a brand new therapy session in the title track "4:44." You can hear the tremble in his voice as he begs for Bey's forgiveness as he admits his faults in the most honest bars he ever spits.

When he's not baring his soul to the world, Hov offers life advice to the young generation who hold stacks of money up to their ear for the 'Gram. He emphasizes that credit is more important than throwing stacks of cash in the air. He reassures stubborn men everywhere that therapy might not cure all of our mental struggles, but it will help alleviate the constant pain and anguish. The best part about the album is that, after the smoke clears from his lyrical bombs, JAY survives it all. I know some might not agree, but I'll go out on a limb and call this masterpiece his magnum opus.

Richy Rosario, Contributing Writer

Human evolution requires digging deep into a dangerous introspection we often tend to avoid. It takes finding and using that courage inside the strength we didn’t know we had to help us arrive at that place of transparent vulnerability; inevitably collides with the truth we often hide beneath our cleverly pre-meditative constructed faux realities. In his new project, 4:44, we find the 47-year-old JAY-Z in this cathartic and honest destination. The 10-track offering presents Shawn Carter as a mature man who’s ready to right his wrongs. He lays his cards all out on the table and seeks redemption. “Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real/But you can't heal what you never reveal,” he ponders on the album’s opening, “Kill Jay Z.”

Amid, his travels he still seemingly calls out those who have wronged him, too. In that same track he calls out Kanye West for his infamous 2016 rant in a California concert. The most telling song on the album is “Family Feud” featuring Beyoncé. On Lemonade, she hints of a “Becky with the good hair,” and (seemingly) accuses her husband of an affair with her. That same antagonist comes up on JAY’s side of the story, too. “Yeah, I'll f**k up a good thing if you let me/Let me alone, Becky,” he raps, but he finally comes clean on “4:44” blatantly admitting all his mistakes. He also chooses to free his lesbian mother out the closet on “Smile.”

Sonically, the album is tastefully saturated with great lines and beats, thanks in part to producer No I.D. And while he lays all his shortcomings on wax, he still makes sure to remind you of why you fell in love with him in the first place. “Got the heart of a giant, don't you ever forget/Don't you never forget, Jigga got this shit poppin'/I pulled out the pot when we was outta options,” he declares on “Bam.” After all, the greatest men of all time have made mistakes and JAY Z is seen as no exception.

Ashley Pickens, Contributing Writer 

Shawn Carter knocks down doors, stomping onto the viaduct of his life, with his marriage and family just eye’s view below, meeting JAY-Z on the other end with a death threat. The warning signal that woke the man that harbors the beast and the martyr? The fear of losing his family. That’s 4:44 - the Life And Times of Shawn Carter vs JAY-Z, a crusade to find the existence in the middle of the man and his sobriquet. The title track, “4:44” is the “crux” of the album rests in the middle of the overpass, while his “Legacy” awaits below.

When you lay the “A-side” and “B-side” parallel to each other, there’s a battered tale of the fight it took to awaken the arrival of the man in the middle. Carter explores the treacherous fear of becoming Eric Benet and tries on a suit of vulnerability - in exchange for his armor - as he struggles to accept his exaltation from his days of alibis. While the flip side - the B side, (“Family Feud,” “Bam,” “Moonlight,” and “Marcy Me”) are more of the entertainer we’re familiar with as he braggadociously parades his “cute” billionaire status while he and Bey are “merrily, merrily eating off these streams.”

On the final battle of “Caught Their Eyes” and “Marcy Me,” he taps into Hova, providing for a keener vision to his surroundings. From this, Young Guru gathered and melded the "ideas and truths" that No I.D. hacked away at as his therapist, while everyone followed the Mrs. Carter-approved blueprint. Awakened at 4:44 am was the man in the middle of JAY-Z and Shawn Carter, born and ready to protect his “Legacy” (his children, his Bonnie and Clyde love story, and an empire he can pass down to his children).

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Megan Thee Stallion’s Southern Rap 'Fever' Dream

Hot Girl Meg is already an urban legend. You can see her on the cover of Fever, looming over a luxury auto in skin-tight leopard print as flames and horses erupt behind her. It’s the undeniable movie poster aesthetic of blaxploitation icons like Pam Grier’s Coffy. It’s a perfect fit for rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose music channels a Southern rap tradition full of larger-than-life figures like Trina, Gangsta Boo, and her hero Pimp C.

The 24-year-old born Megan Pete started rapping in childhood after accompanying her mother, Holly Thomas aka rapper Holly-Wood, to recording sessions in Houston. Megan’s career began with freestyles at college parties, and she released three mixtapes in three years with her mother as her manager, building her buzz while still completing courses. The rapper is slick and authoritative on the mic as she channels alter egos like Hot Girl Meg, who she calls “the party girl, the polished girl, the turn-up queen.” Her debut album Fever, released last week, is a showcase for this alter ego. Hanging with Hot Girl Meg makes for a fun 40 minutes.

Though her profile has risen to the level of Drake Instagrams and Khalid features, Megan Thee Stallion does not make pop music. She raps, she’s excellent, and she knows it. “I’m a real rap bi**h, this ain’t no pop sh*t,” she ad-libs victoriously on her first song “Realer.” Sure, pop music has eagerly siphoned from rap this decade, but rappers have been drawing lines in the sand since Q-Tip said “Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop” in ‘91. Nowadays, the A Tribe Called Quest auteur is still pushing rap forward as an executive producer for Fever.

“Sex Talk,” the album’s lead single, is a showcase for Megan’s bars. “I’ma bust quick if your lips soft,” she raps in short bursts around distorted bass and snaps. “Rock that ship ‘til ya blast off.” In her second verse, she accents the offbeat to boast, “I should be in museums because this body a masterpiece.” Though the song’s popularity was eclipsed by the video release for last summer’s more bombastic “Big Ole Freak,” it’s a fitting introduction to Thee Stallion: her range of staccato to elongated flows is catnip for heads like her who grew up on freestyle DVDs, paired with a blown out beat riding the minimalist wave that’s subsumed parties across the country.

Sex is the main concern in Megan Thee Stallion’s work, followed closely by money. Such confident sexuality from a black woman has unfortunately drawn criticism and retrograde questioning from some in the media, but she’s undaunted. “You let the boys come up in here and talk about how they gon’ run a train on all our friends and they want some head and they want to shoot everything up, and they want to do drugs,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Well, we should be able to go equally as hard. I don’t want to hear none of that ‘That’s offensive!’ or ‘All she talk about is p***y.’”

Megan’s mercenary demand for her pleasures is a refreshing gender swap of rap tropes. On “Running Up Freestyle,” she raps, “He say I should be nicer, well your d**k should be bigger.” She’s blunt enough to make me clutch my pearls on behalf of my gender before I burst out laughing. Later in “Sex Talk,” Megan kicks a would-be lover out when she cues up trap music and he asks “Girl, you tryna trap me?” She’s offended by the insinuation she needs to keep a captive, when she doesn’t need anyone she doesn’t want in the moment. It’s a role reversal that plenty of female rappers have executed previously, but few with the same raw skill.

“Hood Rat Sh*t” opens with a sample of a 2008 viral video, a 7-year-old explaining his desire to do “hoodrat stuff” with his friends. The uptempo drums bounce around cavernous piano chords with gleeful menace like a gaggle of unsupervised kids. Megan’s rhymes launch into double time in the lead-up to the chorus, which she spits like a playground taunt. In the third verse, she gives an evocative example of the title: she’s at the strip club drinking Henny from a champagne glass, “eating chicken wings with a thick bi**h” who’s dancing like the diamonds in her necklace. Her swaggering flow sounds like the reincarnation of Pimp C, with the tall tale verses to match.

Rising Charlotte rapper DaBaby adds a verse over bellowing 808s on “Cash Sh*t.” When Megan says “That’s my dog, he gon’ sit down and listen,” DaBaby describes fixing his partner’s weave during sex and incorporating headlocks into new positions. On its own, his verse might be too direct, like a stranger leering from the end of the bar. It’s perfectly absurd on Megan’s album. He works as a foil to the main attraction, like he’s just trying to keep up.

 

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Real HOTGIRL shit 😛

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The only other guest on Fever is Juicy J on “Simon Says,” where he also supplies a beat that sounds like a house party in the middle of a home invasion. “Simon says bust it open like a freak,” Megan raps like a nursery rhyme, a fitting match for the originator of “Slob On My Knob.” The song was the center of a minor controversy over the album release weekend when singer Wolf Tyla implied she had a writing credit and drew an indignant response from Megan. The facts became harder to parse from there. Maybe Tyla wrote the hook, or maybe Juicy did and asked her to record a reference track. (A just okay hook to go to bat for as an unknown ghostwriter, frankly.) In an era where the world’s biggest male stars snipe at each other about fragments of songs they’ve written for one another, this shouldn’t be a story, but a rising female rapper can’t allow any question of her bona fides.

Even if “Simon Says” is entirely ghostwritten, the Three 6 Mafia homage is far from an aberration in Megan’s catalog, or even on Fever. Juicy J produced two other album cuts, future strip club anthems “Pimpin” and “Dance.” Fellow co-founder Project Pat contributes to “W.A.B.,” built around a sample of the group’s “Weak Azz Bi**h.” Three 6’s influence is apparent in so many strains of modern hip-hop, but on Fever Megan places the Memphis collective alongside Houston and New Orleans in a firmly Southern context. The album concludes with Megan declaring herself “Hot Girl Meg from the motherf**kin’ South,” and it doesn’t feel like a conclusion, just a tantalizing cliffhanger promising further misadventures.

Fever is not perfect. “Best You Ever Had” strays a little too close to pop. Halfway through an album of knocking beats, it’s jarring to hear Megan’s voice coated in electronic sheen, sharing space with a recorder loop. In headphones the project becomes a bit repetitive in the back half, but it won’t be noticeable blaring out of club speakers. Given how quickly she’s befriended so many other stellar young female rappers, it would have been great to hear her spar with some of them on her debut.

Nevertheless, Megan Thee Stallion is picking up the baton for Southern hip-hop with a quick tongue and trunk rattling beats optimized for twerking. She inherited the legacy from her mother, as well as an unstoppable work ethic, the kind that kept her from cancelling shows even after her mother’s tragic death this spring because “I know she wouldn’t want me to stop.” Not long ago, a buzzy mixtape rapper signing to a major label like 300 Entertainment was a one-way ticket to clunky albums overstuffed with radio bait. Fever’s cohesion is a testament to Megan’s talent and dedication. Look forward to partying with Hot Girl Meg all summer.

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Bradley Murray

Jamila Woods Resurrects Legends On ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Three years ago, Jamila Woods entered the scene as a woman grounded in her self-hood on her debut HEAVN. The album is a memoir of her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side and her introspections are comfort food for anyone on a search for their center. She digs up memories such as pride in games she played growing up on “Popsicle (Interlude)” and runs down why she’s worthy of all good things on the healing self-love anthem “Holy.” The sound is dripped deeply in neo-soul and hip-hop, in the family of her Chicago peers Saba, NoName, and Chance the Rapper.

Now the 29-year-old returns evermore enchanting on her sophomore effort, Legacy! Legacy! This time, the singer-songwriter puts herself in direct lineage with legendary black artists, writers, poets, and musicians by naming each of the project’s tracks after them. Woods was inspired by these heroes on her journey as an artist, published poet and community organizer. But she’s not simply riding on the shoulders of these legends. She’s using lyricism and storytelling to resurrect them as if they were to speak to us today.

“I thought of it not so much as writing songs about these people, but thinking of the songs as self-portraits,” she explained to Pitchfork in an interview. “I was looking through the lenses of these different people, their work, things they said.”

The result is 13 tracks of her soothing lullaby, free-flowing melodies, and sing-songy raps of gratitude for each of the lessons she learned from these greats.

There is “Betty” dedicated to Betty Davis, an unsung funk musician whose empowered spirit was ahead of her time and caused her to be shunned from the spotlight. Davis was also married to jazz pioneer Miles Davis, who she influenced in the latter part of his career. The marriage ended in a rocky divorce and Jamila considers whether this hindered Betty’s success by flipping her story into a song about guarding her light around toxic masculinity and men who could interrupt her growth. “Let me be, I'm trying to fly, you insist on clipping my wings,” she sings over the piano-led track, produced by Chicago producer OddCouple.

Woods continues to explore relationships on “Frida,” a funky boom-bap number produced by Chicago-based Slot-A, who produces most of the album. The track draws inspiration from the Mexican icon Frida Kahlo’s relationship with Diego Rivera. The couple lived in separate homes connected by a bridge while they were together. Woods uses this as a symbol for maintaining your own space to find self, whatever that may look like, even when you’re in a partnership. “Multiply my sides, I need a lot of area/A savior is not what I'm seeking/I'm god enough and you be believing,” she commands.

Although Woods shines on her own tracks, one standout feature is Brooklyn emcee (and current touring mate) Nitty Scott on “Sonia.” The track is inspired by a poem written by Black Arts movement poet Sonia Sanchez in the voice of an enslaved black woman who was finding power in detailing the trauma of her condition. Similarly, Scott lays out all her experiences with toxic relationships on a verse that should be studied by all young woman as a relationship manual. “All the women in me are tired/Listen, ni**a/My abuela ain't survive several trips around the sun/So I could give it to somebody's undeserving son,” Scott quips. Woods also describes finding clarity on relationship issues after talking them out with her mother, grandmother, and cousin. “I knew I could do it 'cause if my blood went through it/I knew I could endure it, I knew that I could heal it,” she croons.

When she’s not breaking down the personal, Woods takes on race politics. On the gritty “Miles” dedicated to the aforementioned Davis, Woods embodies his rebellious attitude toward racism. “You could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma'am/ But I'm a free man now,” she flexes on the track’s first verse. The song also tells of a man who took the oppression he faced and poured it into mastering his musicianship. Davis talks about this in a 1962 Playboy interview, where he explained that when he was in high school he knew he was the best trumpeter in music class, but all the white students would win the first prizes in contests. “It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn,” he recalls. “If I hadn't met that prejudice, I probably wouldn't have had as much drive in my work.” Davis went on to become one of the most influential jazz artists in the world. Woods calls on that pride he had in his genius, as she references Davis’s 1950 album Birth of Cool on several lines, including, “You can't fake the cool/I could do it in my sleep.”

The spacey-electronic “Octavia” echoes the late science fiction author’s notable ability to manifest her success through journaling. Butler was one of the most prominent black women to write in a mostly white and male-dominated genre, publishing dozens of books, and was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, among other awards. During Butler’s rise, she wrote out her goals in a series of affirmations that were put on display in an exhibit called “Octavia Butler: Telling My Stories” at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in 2017. One of the notes read, “My books will be read by millions of people! I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood!” On the chorus, Jamila borrows one stunning line from her notes: “I write it down, it happens next/So be it, see to it.”

Woods talks candidly to white Americans about their privilege and how it blinds them from reality on “Baldwin” in the same way James Baldwin did in his writings. Baldwin once wrote in a 1962 essay in The New Yorker: “Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.” Woods keeps the same energy when grieving about gentrification — which is now a fabric of life in most American cities — and the stress it can bring black natives of big cities. “You could change a hood just by showing your face / Condo climbing high, now the block is erased / (You don't get it, get it),” she spits.

On Legacy! Legacy!, Woods took her ability to paint her rage with social conditions and complex emotions within intimate relationships to the next level, solidifying her as a modern day griot. Yes, this album on the surface is inspired by historical figures but, as promised, the songs aren’t simply biographies about their accomplishments. Woods studied what made each of these individuals human and transformed those insights into a cohesive oral history that connects the past to the present. It’s not an album to be digested in one sitting. She is inviting us to join her in remembering these legends more deeply beyond social media posts that dilute their legacies to soundbites, photos and quote posts on their birthdays. The eras from which these icons rose to prominence passed, but the lessons they offer are timeless. Count on Woods to keep them alive and make sure they’re told.

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Review: Anderson .Paak Reroutes To 'Ventura'

Just five months after his last album Oxnard, singer/producer/drummer/entertainer extraordinaire Anderson .Paak is back with Ventura, his fourth studio LP. Depending on who you ask, the new project is either a surprise second course, or a round of comped desserts to make up for an overdone entree.

The Korean-African-American musician born Brandon Paak Anderson spent the first half of this decade intermittently recording under the name Breezy Lovejoy, converting rock songs into R&B, and drumming for an American Idol alumnus. In 2015, he emerged into the national spotlight thanks to six features on Compton, the long-gestating Dr. Dre album formerly known as Detox. He took advantage of the attention and released two full-lengths in 2016: Malibu was a sprawling solo album that showed him equally deft with bass-heavy club tracks or Sam Cooke-esque soul. Yes Lawd!, a collaboration with producer Knxwledge under the name NxWorries, was a chopped up stoner odyssey, Madvillainy if DOOM could sing as well as he spit. That same year, .Paak announced that he had signed to Dr. Dre’s label Aftermath in a brief but celebratory video featuring the rap mogul himself.

.Paak took nearly three years to unleash the full power of the PR by Dre machine: he debuted the lead single on Zane Lowe, soundtracked an Apple ad, and compared the album to landmarks like The Blueprint and The College Dropout. When Oxnard finally dropped last November, reviews were generally positive but mixed, and it peaked at 11 on the Billboard album charts. Enough fans felt the singer had strayed from his post-millennial soul sound that his own mother felt the need to clap back. With a sprawling summer tour schedule looming, .Paak released his follow-up, Ventura, last Friday.

To hear the artist tell it, that was always the plan. “I told Dre when we were maybe about 80 percent into the Oxnard record that I wanted to actually do two records and he started scratching his head. ...I was like, ‘Let me do two, man. One will be gritty, one will be pretty,’” .Paak told HipHopDX. It’s clear that both albums were compiled from the same sessions, but they are distinct. While Anderson .Paak’s last project emphasized the Michael Bay-sized hip-hop beats that Dr. Dre perfected at the turn of the millennium, Ventura has a more soulful sound. It doesn’t slap, it grooves.

As the cover portrait of the artist with his child suggests, Ventura is an intimate record. He’s focused on sex and love in the long term, the ups and downs of relationships years after the introductory one night stands other pop stars sing about. His blunt-burnt yet sweet voice conjures a charming scoundrel character on record, a dad celebrating Friday night with a popped collar and glass overflowing with dark liquor. It’s a compelling persona .Paak previously exaggerated to cartoonish proportions on Yes Lawd!

Here, his pen shines on the small moments that hint at big feelings. On “Jet Black,” .Paak and his girl are getting physical for the first time in some time, sharing the peak of an unfamiliar high. “It’s been a while, baby, come here,” .Paak beckons. The house beat burbles with slap bass and descending organ as Brandy sings “Feels like someone lifted me.”

.Paak heats up a similarly chilled relationship on the luxuriant “Make It Better.” “Meet me at the hotel motel, though we got a room at home, go to a place that we don't know so well,” he murmurs. Over a laidback thump, .Paak tries to reignite passion in order to save his relationship. His voice desperately yelps on the chorus as the pressure he feels to reconnect emerges, but it quickly subsides into sweet nothings. Smokey Robinson’s backing vocals float in like he’s playing on a radio outside the lovers’ motel room. They’re buried low enough in the mix to suggest that if you’re cool enough to get a feature from a quiet storm legend, you’re cool enough not to rub it in.

Ventura’s precursor was stocked with verses from luminaries like Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, and Kendrick Lamar, but Ventura’s only guest rapper, Andre 3000, appears on the first track, “Come Home.” It’s a rough start. The song opens with a piano melody that loops but never resolves, creating an anxiety similar to an iPhone alarm clock tone. .Paak begs for someone to come home, but it’s unconvincing, like he doesn’t yet understand why they left in the first place.

While Smokey’s feature is masterfully underplayed, Andre 3000’s verse gets a garish spotlight. Since Idlewild, 3 Stacks has made a habit of releasing guest verses on occasion in lieu of making an album of his own. When he’s on, he’s one of the best rappers alive, but “Come Home” is a rare misstep. The Outkast rapper fills entire bars with syllables about asking for forgiveness on a moped with a puppy, but it doesn’t feel charismatic. Fitting Willy Wonka, Tilikum, and Billabong into the same verse is admirable in a technical sense, but it feels like Andre’s “Rap God” technique for its own sake.

The album finishes much stronger. The last track “What Can We Do?” is built around a chiming sitar, and it savors contentment like a West Coast “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” .Paak duets with Nate Dogg on the hook, using recordings made before the legend’s untimely death in 2011. The deceased vocalist was a key G-funk ingredient, but his voice sits comfortably in a sunnier sound. It’s a credit to .Paak that the faux studio banter that closes the song feels natural.

The other features are similarly complementary to .Paak. Lalah Hathaway coos in unison with him on the disco half of “Reachin’ 2 Much.” Jazmine Sullivan plays the other woman, forced to climb in through the fire escape to retrieve her rings and “Good Heels” the morning after. Only Sonyae Elise spars with her host, offering a righteous rebuttal to his demands for the women in his life and sarcastically suggesting that he might be the “Chosen One.”

.Paak name drops to a few key inspirations in his lyrics as well. Later in “Chosen One,” he raps, “Heard your fans want to keep you in the underground, cool, when I blow up say I did it for MF DOOM,” a reminder of his pre-fame time in LA’s crate digging underground scenes. He contemplates leaving a relationship on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and all he can offer is “I’ll see you next lifetime, baby, what did Badu say?”

Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah diptych a decade ago, .Paak’s lyrics about current events are enough to provoke reflection without detracting from the physical pull of the grooves. He nimbly raps “Chicken wings and sushi, I’ve gotten used to the perks, narrowly escaping the holy war on the turf” on “Yada Yada.” Lead single “King James” praises people with public platforms for refusing to go along with a murderous status quo, promising to jump over any wall and bring the neighbors with. In the midst of his “Winners Circle” flirtation, .Paak raps “When I get the gushy, I go dumb like the President.” It’s not a jaw-dropping lyric, but it’s comforting to know that a bar that direct will be performed in arenas across America this summer.

Anderson .Paak’s talent is unquestionable and his spotlight is well-deserved, especially knowing he’s endured homelessness and familial legal trouble on his come-up. To his credit, he appears to be striving towards a magnum opus, a landmark album that becomes a household name like The Chronic or Midnight Marauders. Despite his strong catalog plus a plethora of excellent features, .Paak has yet to deliver that opus. (Yes Lawd!’s destiny as a cult classic aside.) Ventura is a fun, pleasant listen, and an improvement on the bombast of Oxnard. Like most double albums, one gets the feeling that there’s a great forty minute playlist waiting to be assembled from their best tracks.

Ventura ultimately doesn’t quite match the highs of his earlier albums, but it’s a leisurely stroll in the right direction. Nearly a decade into his recording career, it’s proof that .Paak can always find his way to the next beach.

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