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.