[Author’s note: I think for the sake of transparency, it only fair that I admit my love for Anderson .Paak before moving ahead with this review. I first discovered .Paak back in 2013 when, almost as if by miracle, I came across 8oom 8ap nested deep in some obscure YouTube mix. This was back when .Paak still went by his original moniker: Breezy Lovejoy and it remains my greatest pure chance musical discovery to date (my fellow snob John has boldly and repeatedly claimed it is the best song I have ever shown him). I was instantly hooked; that unique funky blend of neo-soul and hip-hop, of singing and rapping – the perfect sound for my ear signature… dare I say I have been his #1 fan ever since.]
Between my first encounter with Paak back in 2013 and his latest release (the subject of this review), the multi-instrumentalist has kept busy with 3 feature-length albums: Venice – 2014, Malibu – 2016, Oxnard – 2018, a collaborative album: Yes Lawd – 2016 under NxWorries (where he forms half of the LA duo, alongside producer Knxledge), a number of feature appearances (special shout out to Dang!), and much more (including seemingly endless touring).
The jack-of-all-trades has proved that he can do it all: sing, rap, produce, play multiple instruments, dance, the list goes on. There is no doubt that he does it all very well, but I would almost go as far as to say, perhaps a little too well.
While Paak has demonstrated his range as an artist, he has left some of his fans (myself included) thirsty for what I like to call his ‘core sound’. To help illustrate this point, let’s divide Paak into two sounds:
- Malibu .Paak – heavy on the neo-soul and boom bap style hip-hop. This is his core sound, and
- Oxnard .Paak – leaning more towards rap, and (somewhat experimental) new age hip-hop, a more aggressive sound. This is his non-core sound.
To illustrate further, let’s put it into terms we can all relate to and draw a parallel to the legend, Mr. Kobe Bryant. Malibu .Paak is afro Kobe: going for the dunk on every possession, pulling 360s on the floor and in the air, graceful as a ballerina. He is the romantic. Oxnard .Paak is mature Kobe. A deadly sharp shooter that drains 3s and fakes left and right like a magician to put up an impeccable fade away jump shot. He is the calculated killer.
All of this to say: I like Oxnard .Paak, but I fucking love Malibu .Paak. It is difficult to describe just how much, but here goes nothing. By play count, Malibu ranks in my all time top 5. It is 1 of only 3 vinyl sleeves that I have framed and hanging on my wall (along with A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service and Erykah Badu’s Worldwide Underground, which happens to be my favourite album cover of all time). To quote fellow snob John, “I can’t quite say what the best albums of 2018 or 2017 were because none stand out, but I can with certainty tell you that Malibu was the best album released in 2016”. Yes John, yes it was.
When Paak signed with Aftermath, you can imagine how excited I was. All that talent under the mentorship of the one and only Dr. Dre, surely this would be another chapter in the book we are all so familiar with. The book that supercharged the rises of Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Kendrick Lemar (to name a few). So when Oxnard dropped, I was….well, frankly, I was sad. Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed but I was sad. I guess I was just really praying for that core sound…
…it just so happens that Ventura was the answer to those prayers and the album I had been waiting for since Malibu.
The album starts with an almost angelic harmony of voices, followed by a percussion build up and boom! Paak’s beautiful cackly pipes. It is obvious almost immediately: this is Malibu .Paak!
Come Home showcases what a Paak and Dre partnership should be. Impeccable production, tailor crafted for Paak’s voice and romantic and melancholic wordsmithing. Not to mention Andre 3000 taking over the last verse in his usual tongue twisting sleekness.
The romance continues with Make It Better. The album’s second single and catchy ballad that urges fallen romances to rekindle, make new memories and (obviously) continue to “make love at the drop of a hat”. Paak’s core sound carries into Reachin’ 2 much, which plays almost like two songs blended into one, and my personal favourite on the album. The lyrics are so perfectly matched to his voice and back up vocals that it’s tough not to sing along even on a first listen (never have the words “sit yo ass down” been sung so beautifully).
Winner’s Circle starts with about as cool of an intro as intros get with a sound clip from the Door Test scene in A Bronx’s Tale where Chazz Palminteri as Sonny LoSpecchio lays down some serious knowledge and great advice for any young lover. A great intro flows into a bouncy track worthy of its title and in turn flows into short but very smooth Good Heels.
Yada Yada on first listen seems like a slight loss of momentum when compared to the rest of the tracks on the album, but still a very pleasant display of Paak’s rapping and soulful ethos and feeds nicely into King James the album’s lead single. The song is a shout out to Lebron James’ (and other outspoken activists like Colin Kaepernick) efforts in the battle for race equality. He touches on police brutality and of course The Donald. A heavy and important message, which Paak packages in a beautiful and catchy beat to make a tough pill easier to swallow.
Chosen One is the least exciting track on the album (in my humble opinion), lacking some of the drug-like addictiveness of some of the other dance-ier and more upbeat numbers, but there is something to be said about Sonyae Elise’s contribution and the song’s message: we should indeed be “loving each other crazy”.
The minor dip in excitement is restored with Jet Black, where Paak tells the story of an almost dreamlike woman with (you guessed it) jet black hair, who buys her own drinks and has an “ass that’s just unfair” (I must admit this is a dream I am fortunate enough to be familiar with). Another example of a song perfectly suited for Paak in both lyrics and sound. Twilight is yet another demonstration of Paak’s unique voice (which is on display much more in this album than it was on Oxnard) paired perfectly with some catchy horns. Paak’s neo-soul really is back in full force.
The album concludes beautifully with What Can We Do which features the late Nate Dogg (RIP). The song once again captures what a Dre partnership can and should be, making fitting use of some excellent unreleased Nate Dogg sound bites. The perfect bookend to a great work of art.
After listening to Ventura (many, many times) and considering the album’s rapid release, it becomes clear that Paak may not have been completely satisfied with Oxnard. Ventura showcases his ambition to show us all the true potential of his partnership with Dre. A partnership where he is the creative compass steering a much larger ship, one with Dre’s gravitas, experience and vast resources aboard.
Frankly I could not be happier as I do think we live in tough times, and the world needs more romantics. To once again reference my fellow snob John, these are the Demon Days.
I highly recommend everybody give this fantastic album a listen and am looking forward to seeing what Paak graces us with next.
Malibu (and now Ventura) .Paak may not be the Paak that we deserve, but he is certainly the Paak that we need…