Largely in thanks to his undeniable talent and increasingly likable persona, Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard, the third studio album from the West Coast rapper-singer-producer extraordinaire, ranked among the most highly anticipated records of 2018. Less than half a year later, Paak has returned with yet another beach-titled LP, the soul-infused Ventura. After relinquishing creative control to Dr. Dre’s rap-centric production on his previous effort, Ventura finds Paak making a swift pivot back to the smooth and groove heavy style of R&B that first gained him public appreciation a few years ago.
The short turn around isn’t the first time in Paak’s career he’s moved quickly to capitalize on hype. In early 2016, he dropped his now lauded sophomore album, Malibu, only a short while after appearing all over Dre’s Compton the previous summer, a period that ultimately catapulted Paak into relevance within the hip-hop community. Today, Paak is as much of a major player in the West Coast rap scene as anyone. His track record of amazing guest spots and relentless touring have only helped further insert him into the conversation for not only contemporary hip-hop, but pop music as a whole.
If Oxnard was an action flick with a big name cast (J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Q-Tip and Snoop Dogg all feature on the record), Ventura is a subdued drama with Paak both starring and directing. Dre’s fingerprints still impact the overall archetype of the album, especially in its flow and in the sharpness of the performances, but his influence blends with Paak’s charisma and The Free Nationals’ mellow grooves in a much more seamless way than on the last record.
One instantly recognizable quality on Ventura, are the angles and attitudes Paak expresses in his love songs. At certain times, he’s looking to please, hoping to satisfy his partner. In other instances, he places priority on himself, either by way of indulging or dodging potentially toxic suitors. Whether his tone is friendly or demeaning, his lyrical approach is simplistic and typically laid over silky and funk-filled beats. He yearns to mend a broken love affair on “Make It Better,” where Smokey Robinson’s vocal contribution gives the track an endearing Motown vibe, as Paak sings his heart out over a crisp drum break. He then questions his lover’s motives on “Reachin’ 2 Much,” which rides a steady disco-funk bassline through dreamy double-tracked refrains. The latter, at nearly six minutes in length, becomes a little long-winded, but the band never loses its grip on the groove.
While Ventura is a clear and conscious effort to make a soul record, there are ample instances of Paak flexing his prowess as a multi-faceted artist and dynamic vocalist. “Winners Circle” is a slick and sensual ode to the life of a ladies’ man. Paak’s razor sharp rap verse on the song’s back half echoes Kendrick Lamar’s tight-wound and nasally delivery and provides a fresh change of pace nestled in between his seductive crooning and the doo-wop style chorus. Though not as well-executed as some of Paak’s previous genre-crossing leaps of faith, “Chosen One” is also a commendable attempt at diversifying the shape and appearance of funk music; in this case, the final product sounds like a groovy mesh of lo-fi and trip-hop.
Perhaps the most fun part about the album is that there isn’t anyone else vying to take the spotlight away from Paak. Each guest is utilized in a way that enhances the particular track they are on. Whether it’s Jazmine Sullivan’s tempered harmonies on “Good Heels” or Brandy’s hushed falsetto in the background of “Jet Black,” Paak remains the focal point of each song. Even André 3000, who continues his run of electrifying guest performances, fits perfectly into the song structure of the nostalgic opener “Come Home.”
Beyond the guest features and Paak’s well-rounded skill set, there’s no denying some of the best moments on Ventura reside in its funkiest tracks. The bassline on “King James” has a stiffness to it that brings to mind the bounciness of flippers inside a pinball machine. From a lyrical standpoint, the song is Paak’s most profound composition to date – using LeBron James’ “godly” social status and community endeavors as a symbol of strength and courage against gentrification and human injustice. On a more heartwarming note, Paak closes the record with the ultimate surprise and delight – he teams up with the late Nate Dogg to deliver a West Coast smash, a true gangsta singalong fit for top-down strolls along PCH on a warm sunny day. The track brings to light just how big of an influence Nate Dogg is to Paak; the comparison between the two rap-singers is unmistakable, it only took having them on the same cut to recognize it.
At this stage in his career, there’s no questioning that Anderson Paak is capable of making great albums. Even more exciting, is that his ambition appears to be on the same level of his talent. “The longer I stay, the less I’m paid,” he sings on the penultimate line of “Yada Yada.” It’s hard not to admire Paak’s dedication to becoming a star. His undying smile and knack for the limelight are part of what makes him so great. What is most impressive about Ventura, however, is the level of maturity he exudes, both as an artist and as a person. Coming off of Oxnard, his most highly publicized release yet, he took it into his own hands to craft a quality follow up in a different style, simultaneously tackling topics that often don’t go hand-in-hand with music that is considered so “feel-good” and light-hearted. His continuously growing approach to the love song, along with his band’s tight-knit and rhythmic style makes Ventura a unique album and a project worth revisiting many times over. It’s incredibly nostalgic, yet feels fresh and full of life – a formula that should continue to create great success for the foreseeable future.