Buoyed by his Grammy Win, Anderson .Paak brings Joy and community to NYC.
There is no better musician than Anderson .Paak to act as an ambassador of sunny Californian radiance and congeniality. “This one’s for all the little dreamers”, he sang, to close of his breakthrough album, Malibu, casting his music as an expression of community-building, an ode to idealism and childhood mischief, and amiably-populated neighborhood corners.
Three years later, as Anderson .Paak embarks on his world tour, that sense of community has persisted— to the point that even the prelude to his performance at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom was absent the irritability and restlessness that tend to build at concerts in the delay between sets. Hipsters mingled with hypebeasts, and older fans no doubt drawn by .Paak’s funk and soul influences, eventually boogying their way from the fringes to join these younger crowds. Anderson .Paak would later ask the audience, “Where are all my weirdos at?” - and not one of these groups would be excluded from the cheers of response.
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When opener Tayla Parx took the stage, extensive line delays meant that she was performing for a sparsely-filled room, with many people still trying to find their seats. Only her earliest fans crowded the stage, or gave her any appreciable recognition, as she performed songs from her forthcoming album We Need To Talk. One wonders if the yearning, catchy single “Me vs Us” would have been given the attention it deserved had the room been informed that Parx has writing credits on Ariana Grande’s “thank you, next” (and sang right beside her when Grande performed the song on Ellen) and Anderson .Paak’s “Tints”.
For her part, Tayla Parx hasn’t learned to capture an entire stage, to seize the room. She still takes cautious steps, anchored to an invisible territory circumscribing her microphone stand, like she might become swallowed by the vast expanse of Hammerstein Ballroom if she ventures too far. Regardless, her impressive solo work and collaborations promise future opportunities to grow her performances and fanbase; and as for tonight, Anderson .Paak, ever the communitarian, brought her out in the final songs of his performance to introduce her to anyone who may have missed her set.
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In a frank admission of Tayla Parx’s still-dim star power, her brief performance was relegated to an opening for an opening, and for a far lesser artist. Funkmaster Flex, hip-hop’s cantankerous old guard, took the stage to satisfy the crowd’s demand for pre-show bangers. Like his more combative counterpart, Charlamagne Tha God, and their offspring, Joe Budden, Funk Flex has remained a fixture of the culture by becoming a tell-it-like-it-is patriarch, delivering punditry with such crisp cadence, confidence, and an unassailable ethos derived from his proximity to hip-hop’s golden age. He presents opinions with such seemingly airtight logic that, despite being on the losing end of so many beefs, he finds his way onto the bill for every big act passing through New York.
The grand irony of this status is how acutely overlooked he is by the youngest generation (and largest demographic) of concert goers. Some people in the audience may have recognized him from the Knockdown Center, where he left the stage before Juice Wrld’s performance in frustration over the subdued response to his set; more likely they see him as just another DJ shuffling radio hits. Flex’s moment of most genuine connection with the crowd came near its end when he asked us, “How many people here are under 25?”, to which the venue burst into cheers. Was this question just a survey to help decide what to play next? Genuine curiosity? An existential crisis as he faced his own diminished popularity?
With the stage cleared for Anderson .Paak, calm and solidarity fell over the crowd again. People mingled, people crossed social groups. We were impatient, but not grumpy. A joint tossed into a trashcan kindled a small fire, but rather than create panic, the few people who dealt with the ordeal grew closer— just what .Paak would want. At last when the man arrived, we were ready and not ready, expectant and surprised.
Anderson .Paak detonated with a drum solo, alone behind a thin screen that glowed fiery, primeval red and projected his shadow in a dozen locations across its surface. The man was everywhere, playing every sound— a potent visual symbol of his multi-instrumental virtuosity. It was almost easy not to notice, preoccupied with the artillery-blare of percussion and bass vibrating up your throat, that this was the song “The Chase” off of his recent album Oxnard. Anderson .Paak, the once homeless, struggling father, doesn’t hide how proud he is of his newfound fame, the validation of a Grammy win; and the early parts of his set reflected this. He couldn’t withhold “Bubblin”, the single that netted him a Grammy for Best Rap Performance, for longer than five minutes into his set. It’s a song about celebrating success, and the song that brought him even more success, so why keep it to himself? He was extending an invitation for all of us to celebrate along with him.
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The concert became a joyous journey through some of the happiest tracks of .Paak’s career, spanning his early work as part of NxWorries; his debut album, Venice; and up to Oxnard. Incidentally, his most joyous moments are also the biggest crowd-pleasers. When .Paak performed “Milk N Honey” and “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”, he frequently turned his microphone on the audience to sing the lyrics in his place— and they never missed a line. Images of California palm trees, open skies, and planetary disks streamed on the screen behind him, periodically replaced with Anderson .Paak’s big, grinning face. These good feelings culminated in a daring stage dive during a rendition of “Saviers Road”. It was a clever rejoinder to the song’s line “I’m too old to act childishly”. But this was the night to act childishly, if childish means happy to be alive. There were no melancholic hits like “The Bird” or “The Seasons/Carry Me”: there was once a time for mourning and there may well be more time for it in the future, but not tonight. Tonight is for all the little dreamers.
The most impressive aspect of the performance, along with Anderson .Paak’s virtuosity and unbending voice, was how fluidly he managed to change modes. His music occupies so many colors, from the intensity and immediacy of hip-hop to the burning longing of soul and funk, and yet at no point did the set seem scattered. There was never a misstep in switching from a slow, swaying funk beat, into a song like “At Least I know”, Anderson’s obscure collaboration with T.I. Much of the credit for this fluidity is owed to The Free Nationals, Anderson .Paak’s touring band and his frequent collaborators. Their value was not lost on Anderson, who took a moment to introduce each band member, shout them out in several songs, and even stepped aside so they could play their own single, “Beauty and Essex”, a collaboration with Daniel Caesar.
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This concert was such that even retrospect doesn’t offer a clear high point. The jubilation that Anderson .Paak introduced from the first moments expanded and spread unabated through the vast concert hall, even as he stopped performing to banter with the crowd or rearrange the stage for a new song. And even as confetti exploded over the ballroom, there was a sense that the concert was only going to get better from there— and it did. The high points came in the little moments when you looked around and realized how blessed you were to be sharing the room with Anderson .Paak, and for him, came when he realized how blessed he was to have this crowd.
At one moment, prompted by nothing particularly poignant, Anderson .Paak stopped mid-singing and said simply, “Wow”. At another moment he again stopped in the middle of his set and just said, “Beautiful”. Maybe it was that the stage lights had just passed over the ethereal, ornate painting across the ceiling of the Hammerstein Ballroom, and Anderson .Paak was looking back on how far he had come, or maybe it was just the happiness, the community in the room.
When I recall the final song of the night, the latter explanation makes the most sense. Anderson .Paak closed with a touching tribute to his friend Mac Miller. “One time for Mac”, he said, before performing their collaboration, “Dang!”, a photo of him and Mac overlayed on the screen. In another room, on another night, it would have been as somber as it was moving. Instead, this memoriam was just as joyous as the two hours that preceded it, his performance as if to say to Mac Miller not “I’m sorry you’re gone”, but, “Thank you for having been here”.
And after the song, the crowd walked slowly out to the streets, some saying exactly those words out loud, and everyone else thinking some version of it and sending their thoughts out to him, saying, “Thank you, Anderson .Paak, for being here tonight.”