Anderson .Paak has no problem showcasing his talent and depth on "Malibu."
2015 was the year of the sprawling L.A. album, with Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, and The Game all releasing projects steeped in the city's musical history and constructed in collaborative sessions with its talents, new and old. Whether by outsourcing the writing to a fresh crop of lyrical assassins (Dre), burrowing into L.A.'s underground jazz scene (Kendrick), or cherry-picking stars from every era of its rich rap history (The Game), each managed to keep things fresh and interesting while ultimately looking down from the Hollywood hills and surveying what 30 years of hip hop has done to the surrounding landscape. 29-year-old Anderson .Paak was nowhere near the youngest guy involved in those three albums, but in playing a major role on two of them, he emerged as the most exciting prospect shaping his city's future. The torch was passed, and now the scratchy-voiced singer from Oxnard offers up his own story on Malibu, his best project yet.
Before Dre came calling, .Paak (FKA Breezy Lovejoy) was already showing his ravenous creativity. Intriguing 2013 covers EP Cover Art came along with a mission to flip the script on the 1950's phenomenon of white artists covering black songs and becoming more famous; his most recent album, Venice, took his balmy R&B into the future with spacey synths, electronic flourishes and trap hi-hats. .Paak always seemed like he was itching for more, and now that he's got the juice, he's certainly not wasting it. Malibu uses his newfound in-roads to give us a varied sampling of Cali hip hop, from the big fish in the mainstream (The Game, ScHoolboy Q) to behind-the-scenes masterminds (DJ Khalil, Dem Jointz), and someone who shares .Paak’s Oxnard roots in Madlib. Beyond that, him and his band, the Free Nationals, dig into even older traditions: D'Angelo's chicken grease funk, lush Stax era soul, and even the classic R&B of the Isleys, Stevie, and Sly Stone. It's a record that wears its influences on its sleeves, and for the most part, it looks remarkably fly while doing so.
However, Malibu's biggest problem is how derivative certain songs seem— “Am I Wrong” veers a little too close to planet Daft Punk in its intergalactic funk, “Your Prime” and “Come Down” offer back-to-back Kendrick impressions, and both “Without You” and “Parking Lot” sound indebted to perennially underrated duo Foreign Exchange. For the majority of the album, .Paak skillfully uses a roadmap of influences to chart a course for new territory, but with a voice and songwriting chops that are usually so distinct, it's easy to tell when he's not adding enough of himself to the mix.
.Paak is first and foremost a gifted, well-practiced singer, but he also usually slides a nimbly-rapped 16 or two into each song. It’s sort of the inverse of the “singin’ ass rapper” phenomenon, in that he's clearly more rooted in one tradition, but a good deal of his appeal comes from his kid-with-a-chemistry-set exploration of the other. On paper, playful non-sequiturs like “Two-step in the corridor / Spinnin’ the greatest hits of Hall & Oates / Open off chronic smoke” shouldn’t work as well as they do, but as eye-catching set pieces in the more expansive scenes .Paak sets with his singing, they pop off the screen. Unfortunate utterances of the phrases “cool beans” and "tig ol' bitties" aside, his conversational style of rapping holds its own.
The other thing that stays afloat amid a swirling sea of influences is .Paak's story. The son of a biracial couple who both spent time in prison, he had to learn to keep his chin up from a young age, and thusly his outlook is honest, unflinching, and uplifting. He struggled to get where he is today, being laid off from a marijuana farm in 2011, moving to L.A. and getting jobs as an assistant to Sa-Ra mastermind Shafiq Husayn and a drummer for a former American Idol contestant. His writing reflects this grind without glorifying his victories ("If cash ain’t king, it’s damn sure the incentive"), as well as his perfectionist bent ("I spent years being called out my name, living under my greatness"). Over the course of Malibu, we get heartbreak, infatuation, adversity, and triumph, none of which seem fake, and all of which bear details unique to .Paak's own life.
Stylistically, Anderson .Paak still seems like composite of R&B and hip hop icons. He's got D’Angelo’s soul, Kendrick’s spirit, and Stevie’s creative restlessness, and he's putting them all to better use than anyone else currently making music. He's clearly got the talent necessary to make any genre of music he wants, and if you didn't believe that before, Malibu drives the point home with ease. All that he has going for him in the way of originality, though, are his voice and his story. That's enough to carry a very good album, but if .Paak wants to equal his influences, he has to transcend them somehow. We'll see if he does that next time, but in the meantime, we're left with plenty to enjoy on Malibu.