The Lowdown: Sufjan Stevens once promised to write an album for all 50 states, but only made it as far as number two. Anderson .Paak has more than doubled that amount, but with the small difference that it’s all about the Los Angeles suburbs. After his debut, Venice, and his breakthrough on Dr. Dre’s Compton, .Paak took us to Malibu, Oxnard, and now Ventura. His songs are pensive, bright, and warm. A tour of his discography is at least as lovely as a tour of the real burbs, and given LA traffic, it would take half the time.
His love for southern California may have been what first caught the attention of Dr. Dre. And Dre deserves heaps of credit for plucking yet another great emcee out of obscurity. But since then, the good doctor’s help hasn’t always been as beneficial. Before he signed to Dre’s Aftermath label, .Paak made Malibu, arguably one of the best hip-hop albums of the last 10 years. His first release on Aftermath was 2018’s Oxnard, and while it sold well, it left many fans feeling puzzled. .Paak hardly sang, which is like keeping a sports car under a tarp. There were unfunny sketches about blow jobs, which we know Dr. Dre likes (see: “Pause 4 Porno”) but which felt out of character for the smiley, soulful .Paak. And while .Paak never directly criticized Dre, he did tell Esquire that with Oxnard, “It’s a learning process for him and with me.” He added, “[Dre] let me have a lot of leeway on Ventura. He was like, ‘It seems like you got it.’ I spread my wings on the production and on the writing and on these collaborations.” In other words, .Paak sounds more like himself.
The Good: Anderson .Paak was born nostalgic. His beats are built around ’70s funk and soul, and his albums are named after the cities where he spent his childhood. But on Ventura, he achieves the nostalgic’s dream and performs a couple of duets with legends from another era. Smokey Robinson is now 79 years old, and aside from Berry Gordy, he is the man most responsible for the success of Motown Records. Now, through the magic of sampling, he joins .Paak on “Make It Better”. Not even Smokey Robinson has a voice as smoky as Anderson .Paak, and it is an absolute joy to hear the two of them crooning, “Do you want to make it better? Do you want to stay together?”
That’s hardly the most surprising collaboration on the album. Nate Dogg died in 2011, but not before laying down hundreds (thousands?) of verses for Dr. Dre. On album closer “What Can We Do?”, he’s been resurrected in a never-before-released recording. “What Can We Do?” is funky and hard, goofy and serious, and done in a way that would make Nate Dogg proud.
Anderson .Paak is consistently thought-provoking. “King James” meditates on the African American experience in 2019, including prejudice, protest, and responses to the protests from white people. Sometimes, though, .Paak is content to capture a mood and makes songs that are less about the words and more about the dizzy jazz-drum flows. He goes on a drunken date on “Jet Black”, but the song is not a story. It’s just that .Paak is so taken with his lover’s beautiful hair that he starts launching rhythmic grenades.
The Bad: For the most part, Ventura is well-balanced and well-paced. To my ear, though, there’s a soft spot in the album around the midpoint. “Good Heels” is a short, slow breakdown, almost like an intermission. It leads into “Yada Yada”, which takes a little while to get going. I enjoyed both tracks individually, but over the dozens of times I listened to the album, my attention always seemed to wander right at that point.
The Verdict: It’s never been easier for artists to stay independent, and on Oxnard, .Paak fell into some of the major-label pitfalls. With Ventura, he reaps the benefits. Of course you can get good samples, good guest verses, and good producers without a great budget, but you have to find deals. Label money buys you consistency. All the samples clear when Dr. Dre writes the checks and you can afford Andre 3000 instead of, say, BJ The Chicago Kid (love you, BJ). Now, Anderson .Paak has learned how to use those tremendous resources to his advantage and made a personal statement to satisfy his nostalgic soul. Ventura is lean and lovely. Anderson .Paak keeps looking backwards, but he might be eyeing the future all the same.
Essential Tracks: “Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson)”, “King James”, and “Jet Black (feat. Brandy)”
Buy: Check out more Anderson .Paak on vinyl here.