Anderson .Paak doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the emphatic run he’s been on in recent years. Literally working his way up from homelessness, the talented singer and drummer completely stole the show on Dr. Dre’s patchy 2015 comeback album Compton before going onto release two – arguably – classic LPs in Malibu and Yes Lawd! (the latter a collaboration with producer Knxwledge).
Witnessing Paak’s raspy vocals play out on a live stage is particularly satisfying. The artist from Oxnard, California is a jack of all trades, who can go from energetically singing neo-soul melodies to rapping rapid fire and playing the drums like he’s channeling the spirit of Lenny White during the Bitches Brew sessions. Keeping this run going was always going to be a big ask, but it’s something Paak just about manages on his third studio album Oxnard.
The first Anderson .Paak album to be released on Aftermath, Oxnard has a grander sonic palette, with Dr. Dre’s presence providing a lot more polish and cinematic sheen. His guiding influence is immediately obvious; “The Chase” has a flute and guitar line that plays out like a Blaxploitation flick, while “Smile/Petty” has those trademark bass-driven drums the good Doctor is famous for. Anderson .Paak still makes music that creates the euphoria of being tipsy on a hot summer’s day surrounded by your best friends, but having Dre behind the boards mixing has emboldened this sound — there’s a clear attempt here to move Paak away from the smaller stages and over to the stadiums.
This ambition mostly pays off. The Parliament-honoring funk of “Anywhere” is blisteringly good, with a vintage guest verse from Snoop Dogg who reminisces on the G-Funk days with inspired bars that recall the Death Row era. “Brother’s Keeper” is also among the highlights, particularly Paak’s gangster sermon lyrics (at one point he ponders: “If Jesus had a better lawyer would he have seen the cross?”) and the energetic drum switch that come in around the 2:35 mark. “Tints,” meanwhile, is a thrilling tribute to the Studio 54 disco years, with friends Paak and Kendrick Lamar clearly having the time of their lives as they take on larger than life pimp personas. These are songs that will keep you warm during the winter months, each destined to ring out triumphantly on the festival stages in Summer 2019.
But Dr. Dre’s presence can also be distracting. “Who R U” and “Mansa Musa” (which features a brittle verse from Dre, who lacks his usual charismatic vocal delivery) both sound dated; like throwaway Dre beats from the underwhelming Compton sessions. Hearing Paak take on a Jamaican accent and go into dancehall territory with “Left to Right” also feels like a jarring departure from his usual sound. These songs are undeniably catchy, but they feel too bouncy; like cheap attempts to crossover to the pop charts, something Paak doesn’t need to do.
Oxnard is at its best when other producers are on beat duty. The up tempo 9th Wonder production on “Saviers Road” inspires Paak to spit some of his very best lyrics as he critiques the nonchalance of his peers, spitting “I would sell you niggas faith, but you niggas don’t believe!” The sun-drenched guitars of “Headlow” are also a hell of a lot of fun, resulting in a conceptual pop song that playfully pays tribute to oral sex. “Trippy” has a unique, silky sound, courtesy of producer Chris Dave, which seems to inspire Paak a whole lot more than those Dre horns. It’s clear Dre has helped to elevate the music on Oxnard – his credentials as an engineer and composer unparalleled – it’s just a shame that the actual beats he provides here sound so cheap and out of place.
You could argue that the immensely talented Paak tries too hard to show his range on Oxnard. By genre-splicing and cramming in so many different sounds, the record certainly doesn’t feel as cohesive as Malibu. But it still hits more than it misses, with Paak displaying clear artistic growth that deserves praise. “6 Summers” shows his evolution as a lyricist as he raps about sullying one of Donald Trump’s daughters. Here he has a knotty vocal style, weaving his way through tricky subjects including gun control and Trump himself (“Cos there’s money to be made with a killing spree, that’s why he try to start a war on his Twitter feed!”) at impressive speeds. When Paak boasts that this arresting song will “bump for at least six summers,” you don’t doubt him for one second, with his ability to mix politics and sex so effortlessly definitely one of his most enviable qualities.
With Oxnard, Paak proves that he’s an artist built to last and a musician who has earned his place among hip-hop’s elite. Sure, it’s not quite as good as his previous efforts and has three or four obvious missteps (all produced by Dr. Dre), but it’s still full of greatness and a record capable of doing something that’s vitally important in the bleak to the point of dystopian shit show that is 2018: Oxnard will make you smile.