New West Coast: .Paak Stakes His Claim as King of the Game

This time working directly under the wing of West Coast legend Dr. Dre, Anderson .Paak is back with another memorable album. .Paak cements himself alongside the musical elite with Oxnard’s diverse vocals, dynamic production, and groovy basslines.

The album represents a huge gain in popularity and legend-status that .Paak has cultivated over his last few years. Malibu got him to the center-stage of modern rap/R&B, but the rollout and execution of Oxnard only solidifies his clout. For the past few months, he’s emanated an air of invincibility; he’s the most talented dude in the game and he absolutely knows it.

.Paak does well to fuse genres at almost every moment, making Oxnard a tough album to pin down and further proving .Paak’s diversity an artist. Funky instrumentation on “Headlow” paves the way for more straight rap on “Who R U.” Despite inconsistency in genre, Anderson keeps everything flowing smoothly, as if it makes sense at all to end such an album with “Left to Right,” a closer that leaves questions as to whether he’s even looking for a singular sound at all.

“WHO R U?” is essentially a statement that he’s on top of the game and no longer worried about your everyday rappers. The song features an overpowering beat, followed by zippy verses and a catchy call-and-response chorus. This track serves as.Paak’s opportunity to criticize the people that are all talk and no walk, whether that be other rappers, significant others, or just fake flexers.

The most accessible song on the album is “Tints.” The earwormy melody of .Paak’s chorus, along with the poppy, groovy beat, sends the album’s lead single into hyperspace on a rocket of foot-taps and “Tints Challenge” dance moves. Adding to its chart-appeal is a feature from Kendrick Lamar, whose own stardom plays directly to the message of the song.

“Tints” solidifies the message that .Paak is aware of his current global status and the implications that come from his ever-increasing fame. This has not translated to a sense of superiority, but rather a sense of disillusionment that has grown alongside his notoriety. While weighing the pros and cons of his current status, he argues that his position has been “no good for him” and “so good for them” — them being the people who mooch off him. Regardless, .Paak’s emergence into the highest level of hip hop has allowed him to work with Kendrick on this track and several other impressive names on this project.

In the stretch of songs from “Brother’s Keeper” to “Sweet Chick,” Anderson shares the stage with a selection of high-caliber features. It’s been interesting to see .Paak continue to interpolate other artists into his catalogue, from Venice only having one feature to four on Malibu to 13 on the 2018 release. Also reflective is genre of feature- almost every feature on Oxnard is rap-enthused.

In their first collaboration, Pusha T and .Paak link up on “Brother’s Keeper.” The fact that Anderson tapped such a mogul of the rap game for such a nonchalant feature further illustrates his claim to the throne of the rap game. Cultural importance aside, the song feels low-effort at points, a glorious moment on an album full of more substantial tracks.

“Cheers,” is an emotionally intense moment. .Paak and the featured Q-Tip trade verses about lost homies, reflecting on the recent deaths of close friends Mac Miller and Phife Dawg. The two play off each other’s energy effectively, but it’s not until halfway through .Paak’s first verse where he and Tip achieve liftoff. The turning point in the song, when Anderson raps; “Don’t do me no favors, let’s get back to basics / We live for today, bitch, fuck up out my way, bitch,” releases a growing dissonance built through the intro. It’s a top-five moment on the project, a moment where .Paak seems to let free his tension of becoming such a well-known artist in an explosion of rhythmic emotion.

J. Cole comes through for the best feature on the album on “Trippy.” His is the only full verse on the track, using the story of chasing a girl as an avenue to explore modern technology and disconnection. Cole has been on his feature game this year, and this might be his best single performance in 2018.

As The Culture’s two premier rapper/singers, it only makes sense that .Paak and BJ the Chicago Kid would be working together on the biggest double-threat album of the year. With “Sweet Chick,” the duo continue the momentum they began two years ago on “The Waters,” off Malibu with another track doused in the drippy charisma of each artist’s bars and melodies.

With “Anywhere,” Snoop Dogg proves he’s the most consistently smooth presence in the history of recorded music. He’s been at it for 25 years now, and he can still open a song by just saying “blunts” and make it sound cool. Snoop might be too old and out of his prime to pass the torch, but when .Paak comes in after an intro verse from Snoop over the G-Funk beat, it feels as though the youngin’ is formally being introduced to West Coast Elite status.

9th Wonder hops in the control room for “Saviers Road,” where .Paak raps about the competing influences of drugs and religion. .Paak initially references personal experience with drug sales, but the song’s ultimate goal is to show his upward social movement and current vision of himself through several biblical and MLK references. The song is short, only including one verse, but the quality and length of .Paak’s bars shine brightly when paired with a classic and catchy 9th Wonder beat.

The next track is “Smile/Pretty.” Production from Keifer is radiant, providing .Paak’s inflected and singing verses with hot and heavy bass riffs. Kiefer’s sound couples with .Paak’s perfectly in both “Smile” and “Pretty,” and the beat switch fits the message like a glove. Both tracks are stand-out, highlight moments of the album. That being said, the split song format leaves the listener wishing both could be full length, similar to “The Season/Carry Me” on Malibu.

But with newfound mega-fame, .Paak faces new problems. On past projects Venice and Malibu, .Paak sang of genuine love and mutual respect in his songs. That largely changes on Oxnard. Expectations of mainstream rap and hip-hop push .Paak into the pitfalls of female objectification, despite otherwise carrying more progressive commentary.

Songs like “Headlow,” and “Sweet Chick” are chock-full of demeaning lyrics. The shift from the romantic vibes he gave on Venice’s track, “Luh You,” to these songs more subject to mainstream attitude are an odd turn for an artist whose wholesomeness has become central to their brand. He’s built his career on his personality of being loving — and maybe it’s the fame, maybe it’s the Dre collaboration — but .Paak just feels different here.

Songs like “6 Summers” remind listeners of .Paak’s lyrical chops, telling the story of Trump’s possible lovechild: “I hope she sip mezcal, I hope she kiss señoritas and black gals.” The track sees .Paak dive into America’s political scene as he breaks Trump down and shares thoughts on gun control, with lyrics like “Ain’t shit gon’ change for the next six summers,” and “Pop-pop-pop goes the shooter / Reform, reform shoulda came sooner.”

Through the inclusion of A-list features and a more accessible flavor to his familiar personality, Anderson .Paak succeeds in making his “I made it” album one to remember. Underneath the gold veneer of this almost-holy album, however, there lie shallow moments, ultimately standing as a reflection of his evolving worldview as a growing rapper.

-Edds, Gormski

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