Every era has its group of entertainers that eventually achieve household name status. From Michael Jackson and Prince to Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, each generation of music is keen to producing a select number of individuals fit for center stage. Anderson .Paak is perhaps one of this decade’s notable show stopping performers. A multifaceted talent capable of spitting vicious bars as much as crooning a soul ballad or busting out a pounding drum solo, Paak is very much a renaissance man playing ball amongst the contemporary hip-hop crowd.
Though not of typical youth stardom (32 years old), Paak’s speedy ascension to the forefront of the game is no mistake. Between his breakout performance on Dr. Dre’s Compton (2015) and a trio of stellar individual and collaborative releases, Paak has become one of the most sought after names in the world of rap and R&B.
Oxnard, his newest and most commercially relevant album to date, arrives as one of the most anticipated releases of 2018. Where Malibu (2016) allowed Paak’s eccentric persona to thrive, Oxnard is a tighter and more carefully constructed listen. Though boggled down by a lengthy guest list, it is sharper, inherently focused on detail and intent, but not without compromising some of Paak’s naturally infectious flair.
The 50-minute affair bolsters one of if not the most talent-heavy lineups on any rap-related record of the year. With Dr. Dre at the helm (executive producer), Paak’s sophomore LP features guest appearances from West Coast comrades Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, along with Pusha T, Q-Tip, Kadhja Bonet and others. This star-studded cast builds Oxnard up to be a much more significant event than it really is, but supports the album in its attempt at documenting Paak’s neo-soul Californication.
From the get-go, Paak makes it clear that his ideal life in the sunshine is one full of hedonistic endeavors. His fondness for tequila, kush and women plays more like an obsession on the road-head anthem “Headlow,” only before he flexes his rising West Coast status on the following track “Tints,” a summery synth-funk banger appropriately assisted by hip-hop’s undisputed ace Kendrick Lamar. This modernized California G-funk is easily best captured on “Anywhere.” The production from Pounds welcomes in a 1993 esque verse from Snoop Dogg, after which Paak proceeds to tell his girl he’s ready to bang in a moment’s notice – anytime, any place.
Smooth and colorful grooves may indeed be Anderson .Paak’s calling card, but as expected, throughout the album he wears numerous artistic caps, especially that of a menacing rapper. He trades the comedic angle presented on past records for bragadocious bars and even some politically-driven lyrics too.
“The Chase” opens with theatrical percussion and flutes, gradually progressing into an aggressive funk rap. The Dr. Dre assembled “Who R U?” opts for a more dominant persona, but instead sounds like a mild, weakly produced club song. In comparison, “Saviers Road” successfully pulls off the gangsta-rap aesthetic and narrative, with Paak maneuvering his way through a couple short verses with slick lines like “vision was like Martin Luther on the mountain peak.”
The album’s middle stretch is made up of interesting albeit unexciting instrumental choices, such as the synthetic and mumbly “Mansa Musa.” Worth noting however, is the beat switch on “6 Summers,” a chill, bass-driven track that sees Paak confronting Donald Trump and issues of ongoing gun violence. His rapid flows and cleverly assembled rhyme schemes make it an admirable performance, considering how redundant anti-Trump rap songs can be.
Oxnard‘s final moments prove to be some of its strongest. Aside from J. Cole making another deposit in the bank of creepy social media stalker raps, the guests on the album’s back half show out with compelling performances. Pusha T drops in to provide his usual on-fleek cocaine kingpin bars on “Brother’s Keeper,” a song that effortlessly fuses watery neo-soul guitars with trap drums. Paak then joins forces with Q-Tip to pay respects to their late companions, Mac Miller and Phife Dawg, on “Cheers” – the album’s emotional centerpiece.
Overall, Oxnard features solid production and above average vocal performances, both on the singing and rapping fronts. There are enough good grooves and entertaining verses to encourage revisiting the album, but as a body of work it lacks the “wow” factor that was so heavily anticipated coming into the release.
The thing that had fans most excited for a new Anderson .Paak record was Paak himself and it’s hard not to feel as if his personality was held back in the making of this record. There was clearly an increased attention to detail, song structure and songwriting, evident by the tighter verses and large number of collaborators, but missing are the instantly gripping rhythms and irresistible melodies that made Paak’s previous projects seem so promising. It’s not a question of talent or resources; Paak is unquestionably destined for greatness. Hopefully Oxnard will serve as a key chapter in his journey to crafting many great albums.