Anderson .Paak has never been afraid to put in the work. A drummer, singer, rapper, video editor, session musician, and (previously) a weed farmer, .Paak is no stranger to hard graft. It should come as no surprise then that when his fourth album Oxnard was met with a lukewarm reception at the end of last year, he got straight to work on his fifth.
Ventura is the fourth and supposedly final instalment in .Paak’s California-themed run of records (his first album, as Breezy Lovejoy, is his only record not named after a West Coast beach). At 11 tracks long, it’s a more concentrated offering than Oxnard, with fewer guest features and a greater focus on soul, R&B and pop, rather than the funk touch points that has underpinned a lot of his work.
Things start cinematic on “Come Home,” the André 3000-featuring opener. A pensive piano riff and rolling snares signal the arrival of a heart-broken Anderson .Paak, who, embracing his inner bluesman, pleads and howls with a lover to come home. It’s a dramatic performance, but that extra bombast is needed to compete with the relentless rhymes of Three Stack’s verse, which deals with everything from the WWF to Ramadan. Follow up track “Make It Better” is certainly one of .Paak’s sweetest songs to date and provides the album’s first glimpse of the Malibu-charm that seduced us all three years ago. However, Smokey Robinson’s backing vocals merge into the hook in such a way that if he weren’t credited, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell they were there to begin with.
Similarly, that sweetness and charm aren’t enough to disguise the fact that .Paak just doesn’t sound as convincing a lothario as he did two albums ago. Whereas on Malibu and Yes Lawd! – his 2015 collaboration with Knxwledge – he served as the listener’s shit-talking, smoother-than-a-motherfucker guide to the world of LA parties and evenings spent cruising the strip, on Ventura he’s cleaned up his act, twisting his sound into all sorts of unnatural shapes to fit modern pop trends.
Take “Winners Circle” and the Jazmin Sullivan-featuring “Good Heels,” for example. On the former, .Paak is transformed into an R&B singer that wouldn’t sound out of place in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. Much of the personality in his vocals has been mixed out, and even the A Bronx Tale-sample feels like a bland pastiche. Meanwhile “Good Heels,” with its descending hook and miniscule track length – just one minute and 38 seconds – sounds like a discarded track from the latest Solange record.
Cleaner though his sound may be, .Paak is still the man that wrote “Suede,” and when he lets his slick side out it’s still a joy to behold. On “Yada Yada,” Pharcyde-esque keys give way to a contemplative run of verses while he switches between his sung and rapped vocals with finesse. When he chucks out the line “casually talking that global warming, like the temperature didn’t melt your perm,” it feels like we’ve got the old Anderson back. It’s one of a few moments of brilliance on Ventura and sets the stage nicely for the Thundercat-worthy basslines of “Chosen One.”
Lead single “King James” is a funked-out, semi-conscious tribute to the likes of Brown and LeBron. There are nods to the Black Lives Matter NFL protests and the politi-soul of Marvin Gaye, but again, something is missing. As the end of the record comes into sight, it’s clear that .Paak’s pop sensibilities have taken over and things start to fizzle out. Even Brandy can’t rescue the bland dance pop of “Jet Black,” a track so soulless that .Paak’s signature “yes lawd!” adlib sounds stale and trite.
Thankfully though, Ventura ends on a high. Closing track “What Can We Do?” manages to sound both Eastern-influenced and rodeo-ready, with the sadly departed Nate Dogg’s guest vocals adding some old school West Coast flavor. It’s one of the few truly ‘new’ moments on the album, with .Paak merging styles effortlessly; it would be a crime to waste a Nate Dogg feature after all.
Ultimately, it’s not enough to save .Paak’s blandest album to date. In the YouTube comments of his performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk, there’s a post that reads ‘Anderson .Paak is the man Bruno Mars wishes he was.’ On Ventura, it sounds like Anderson .Paak wants to be Bruno Mars. Bland pop production blights the whole album, removing all but the slightest hint of the raw energy that defined his earlier work. The hooks aren’t as good; and bar “Chosen One” and “Yada Yada,” there’s not much groove to speak of. Oxnard may have been a relative flop, but at least it had tracks like “Tints” on it – you can count the number of memorable tracks on Ventura with one hand. The whole thing is pleasant enough, and certainly won’t scare off any diehard fans, but it’s not likely to win him any new one’s either. California has been .Paak’s muse for four albums now, it’s probably a good thing it won’t lend its name to a fifth.