Music Reviews

Heading East, Anderson .Paak Pivots Back to Funk on Breezy VENTURA


Genre: West Coast Funk

Favorite Tracks: “Come Home (feat. Andre 3000),” “Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson),” “Reachin’ 2 Much (feat. Lalah Hathaway),” “King James,” “What Can We Do (feat. Nate Dogg)”

Brandon Paak Anderson, better known by his stage name Anderson .Paak, has been one of the most exciting and compelling artists of the latter half of this decade. Hitting the scene with his debut album VENICE in 2014, the singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and drummer trafficks in an effortless and essential brand of fusion, blending together various strains and styles of jazz, R&B, soul, funk, and hip hop. He truly launched his career into a new stratosphere with his 2016 sophomore effort, MALIBU, a lengthy record full of wonderfully catchy, funky, sharp, and lasting songs that, despite not making a particularly pronounced splash on the charts, was lauded by key industry figureheads like Dr. Dre and XXL Magazine. Only months after the release of his second album, .Paak found himself signed to Aftermath Entertainment and appearing on the cover of the 2016 XXL Freshmen issue. Naturally, anticipation and expectations were high for .Paak’s third album, 2018’s OXNARD, a much more hip hop-centric record defined by .Paak’s larger-than-life persona and Dr. Dre’s signature, high-definition, maximalist production style. Although OXNARD was a strong release with plenty of memorable tracks to its name, it seemed that .Paak was somewhat letting slip his artistic restraint, allowing the record to become somewhat bloated and saddled by less-than-stellar musical ideas. VENTURA, his fourth record, arrives just six months or so since the release of OXNARD, and despite the quick turnaround, .Paak has come through with an album that sees him tightening his focus, trimming the fat, and returning to some of the sounds that put him on the map to begin with.

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Within the first five seconds of the first track, “Come Home,” it becomes very clear that this is not simply going to be like OXNARD. With a crystalline and up-front bass tone leading the way, .Paak slips into an exceedingly tasteful soul groove over which he simply sings an earnest and convincing love song. Replete with well-placed piano, stately horns, and an intriguing flute part, he brings it back to the golden age of Motown before, as he is wont to do, completely flipping the script in the back half of the track; most of the soulful bells and whistles fall away for a brief vocal break before giving way to an understated but perfectly textured guitar part over which none other than André 3000 himself drops one of his signature jaw-dropping rap verses. As though this strong opener wasn’t enough, the great Smokey Robinson enters the picture to sing backup on another vintage Motown-style soul ballad called “Make It Better.” Despite only being the second best song called “Make It Better” of the last few years (shoutout to The Misters), the track lands flush, aided by the additional vocal texture that Smokey brings to the choruses and some colorful strings that help the song to teem with the vibrant energy of a fresh spring.

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The third track, “Reachin’ 2 Much,” is a deft turn in the record, starting off with about 90 seconds of effusive and upbeat funk that, while remaining as bright and engaging as anything on the record, threatens to allow it to drift into a sort of monotony. Right when VENTURA feels like it might start to loosen its grip on your attention, “Reachin’ 2 Much” transforms into a completely different song, unveiling a sleek lounge vibe that would feel more at home on Steely Dan’s GAUCHO than it would on something like INNERVISIONS. The false start on this track is pleasantly cheeky, a sort of nudge and wink from .Paak that gives you just enough of the first portion of the song to satisfy anyone that may have been left wanting more. “Winners Circle” is another track that, like the first and third, doesn’t reveal all of its cards up front; the bass once again takes center stage early, providing the song’s groovy rhythm and supplying most of the energy and counter-melody while coloring an otherwise rather sparse arrangement. However, .Paak throws us another mid-song curveball over the last minute, stripping away everything but the drums and bass and laying down a decidedly funky verse of jazz rap that serves as the song’s main event and climax—he makes us wait for him to bust out his rapping chops, but the wait makes the reveal all the more satisfying.

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The album settles into its middle portion with a quick and rather forgettable interlude, “Good Heels,” before moving onto perhaps the most OXNARD-like track of the record, “Yada Yada.” This song sees .Paak stepping back into the rappers’ shoes for a track and pontificating over a simple mid-tempo kickdrum beat. The album’s lead single, “King James,” begins at just about the perfect time for the album, providing a much-needed shot of syncopated energy along with some witty, socially conscious lyrics and sharp saxophone fills. “Jet Black” is as close as the album drifts to Top 40 mainstream pop, employing a rather straightforward dubby pop beat, but .Paak smartly uses other instrumentation, like the bass and featured vocals from Brandy, to shift the song’s internal rhythm onto the more nebulous backbeat, where .Paak has always been more comfortable. After a somewhat dull attempt at a Latin-flavored track on “Twilight,” the album finishes off strong with perhaps the album’s best song, “What Can We Do?” Featuring previously unused vocals from the late West Coast hip hop legend Nate Dogg, .Paak puts together a legitimately charming duet that you would never guess features two performers who never saw the studio together. As a child of the West Coast hip hop scene, it’s not hard to see Nate Dogg’s DNA in .Paak’s music, and .Paak clearly put great care and thought into this song, ensuring that he would do justice to one of his departed icons. He succeeds multiple times over, as .Paak and Nate Dogg sound like old friends on this track, jointly singing a laid-back and triumphant soul tune that, while bittersweet, ultimately brings the whole record to a heartwarming and uplifting conclusion.

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VENTURA is a fascinating statement from Anderson .Paak, seemingly aimed directly at his last album’s detractors, as he mostly eschews OXNARD’s hip hop focus in favor of the soul and R&B slant that largely ran through MALIBU. By no means is VENTURA as compelling or essential of a project as MALIBU, but holding artists to the standards of their masterpieces is a cruel and unfair practice. As an album, VENTURA surpasses its immediate predecessor, cutting back significantly from OXNARD’s slightly bloated runtime and serving as a concise and enjoyable listen that I strongly suspect will remain in my heavy rotation through the spring. If you’re searching for a breezy, funky, and well-crafted set of toe-tappers full of verdant energy for these brighter months, look no further.

Jacob Martin
Unofficial Self-Appointed Merry-Go-Round Chicago Correspondent. Number 1 on in plays for John Prine and Alex Cameron.

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