The West Coast polymath delivers on his first album for Aftermath, crafting a singular vision of California funk and rap.
After years of grinding for success, what happens when you get everything you want? 2016 was an inescapable year for Anderson Paak but the narrative attached to his rise is what made it feel so genuine. The man can do anything: play the drums, sing funk and rap about stealing your girl with a wink. It’s this charisma, besides his innate songwriting talents, that made him stand out on Dr Dre’s Compton, and dropping a solo album and a collab with Knxwledge in 2016 seemed to only bolster this notion. It’s also this innate charisma that singlehandedly saves every stiff and awkward moment found in Oxnard. His first album for Aftermath, with Dre executively producing and a slew of production courtesy of Paak himself, 9th Wonder, Q-Tip, Mell and members of the Free Nationals, aims sky-high.
Kicking it off with a two-song suite that starts with the sound of flutes and ends with a serious case of road head gone wrong; Oxnard is supposed to be stadium-level shit. Paak has a great voice; a honeyed rasp seemingly capable of doing anything and as a rapper, he's emotive and charismatic. It’s his singing voice, something you can describe with a series of exclamation points, is what drew in listeners and it’s this voice that you hear on lead single “Tints,” a busy, knocking jam that you’ll hear all year regardless of the weather outside. Yet Oxnard pushes this to the sidelines and prioritizes the latter. It largely works out because Paak can still coax engaging melodies out of his raps, even if they’re a bit stilted at times. “Who R U” shows just what he can do when he’s engaged in Rap Paak mode, bouncing off the walls as the off-kilter drums threaten to swallow the entire room whole.
Yet when given a bigger palette to draw from, Paak stumbles. “6 Summers” starts off as a free-associative jam; Trump’s lovechild, Fela Kuti and gun reform weighing heavily on Paak's mind before the band tears the song apart at the midway point, rebuilding it into a simmering, West Coast burner that leaves you to wonder why we had to get through some awkward freestyling first. “Mansa Musa,” featuring Dre, feels far closer to the latter’s Compton than Paak’s vision here. Album closer “Left to Right” features some grossly misplaced patois that feels incredibly out of place at the end of a journey; a wild monologue as the movie credits close and the wide angle shot of a serene Los Angeles fades to black.
One benefit of working with Dre is the upgraded Rolodex of names to call upon. Snoop Dogg takes a break from hanging out with Martha Stewart to take young listeners to school on the g-funk “Anywhere,” sounding absolutely thrilled to reminisce. BJ The Chicago Kid comes in with a joyous guest vocal on “Sweet Chick,” a further reminder of Anderson .Paak’s charisma because nobody else can say something quite as ridiculous as "she be watching anime while I'm laying dick" and sell it with a wink and a laugh. “Brother’s Keeper” attempts the same trick “6 Summers” tried, but to better success, sounding brewed in the California desert as .Paak and Pusha T trade off verses about regret and success. “Trippy” finds J.Cole continuing his year of stellar guest verses with one about using rental cars as a flex and trying to catch up with old flames. Then there’s “Cheers,” a eulogy to times and people gone by. Loss weighs heavy on the minds of .Paak and Q-Tip, who paints a stunning tribute to Phife Dawg. “My story ain't over, I'm still turnin' pages” Q-Tip raps, “But the picture I painted with you in it has faded”
Oxnard is no failure but it faults under the weight of its crushing ambitions. Malibu and Yes Lawd! gave .Paak plenty of room to do his thing but worked wonders with limitations. Here, we have a Paak looking to figure out just what he can do with more. But Oxnard, with its sinuous mix of West Coast funk and hedonistic rap, proves that Anderson .Paak is one of the best today and has a classic (if not multiple) waiting. He’s been patient throughout his entire rise to the top; it only makes sense to apply the same logic to his superstar moment.