Ventura // Anderson .Paak
Last year’s Oxnard was somewhat of a jarring hard right, as Anderson .Paak detoured from his signature warm, inviting funk to indulge some hard-hitting Dre beats, gold-and-silver excess, and generally more of hip-hop’s less-sophisticated impulses. The LP excelled commercially, and was undeniably fun, but many felt that .Paak had a little too much fun with it, leaving his best aspects behind.
If Oxnard was a hip-hop LP tinted with R&B and soul, then its sister project, Ventura, is a R&B/soul LP draped in hip-hop, representing a return to .Paak’s jazz/funk/soul palette with grace, gusto, and a star-studded roster of features.
Ventura kicks off with “Come Home,” a lavish slow jam with a memorable Andre 3000 cameo (as if there’s such a thing as an unmemorable one). The hip-hop alumnus summa cum laude steals the show with a verse that progresses from saunter to skip to full-out sprint as he double-dutches bars about grown-up relationships and their challenges. The track sets the tone for the rest of the LP, which explores the highly un-poppy concept of creating something lasting and meaningful and the work necessary to do so.
“King James” is a sort of social activism work song, referencing Colin Kaepernick, the Trump wall, and celebrating Lebron James’ ongoing commitment to community (“And we salute King James / For using his chains to create some equal opportunities”). The song’s laid-back, mid-tempo vibe approaches protest music as more of a soothing, outstretched hand rather than an uproarious rallying cry.
The cover art, featuring a black-and-white photo of him and his daughter “taped” to the off-white background, and “ventura” and “ANDERSON .PAAK” scrawled in handwritten pencil, nicely ties Ventura up with a bow: Much like the music itself, it’s more grounded in physical media, real-life topics, and earnest subject matter than his past work has been.
Anderson .Paak has long flirted with mature nuanced themes such as relationships and justice, but Ventura represents a wholehearted embrace. Amongst drums sparking like fireworks and silky layers of harmony, .Paak tackles these issues head-on. Like any good album, it’s thoroughly entertaining on its own, but keeps you on the edge of your seat for whatever comes next.
Friends // Omar Apollo
Friends features a wide range of genres and moods, as Omar Apollo dabbles in funk, pop, folk, disco, and a whole host of other styles. Rather than indecisive or scattered, the EP comes across as bold and adventurous, showcasing Apollo’s versatility.
His ability to pull off such musical diversity in just seven songs while making their association feel natural is indicative of his underlying raw talent. That natural skill gives Apollo tons of creative freedom, because there are such a wide range of sounds he can execute, so each element feels as though it comes from taste rather than necessity or habit.
Friends opens with “Ashamed,” an instantly bold and attention-grabbing disco jam that you could easily mistake for a Prince song. This opener — and the rest of Friends that follows as well — improves on the cross-genre instincts he explored on his previous EP, Stereo. After Stereo’s somewhat inconsistent results, it would have been fully understandable for Apollo to return to the guitar-driven ballads that pushed him into the spotlight in 2017. Nonetheless, Apollo doubles down on the experimentation of Stereo, and well-justifies this risk in the process.
Apollo’s physical voice mimics his musical voice, in that he can seemingly do it all.Over the course of Friends, he rises to a delicate falsetto, croons in hushed low tones, and breaks into a howling wail, never sacrificing control along the way.
Friends’ highly diverse range of sounds confounds expectation and lets Apollo defy pigeonholing right from the start of his blooming career. It’s tough to figure out precisely what kind of musician Apollo is besides a damn good one. It’s clear, however, that the core of his music is a strong instinct for song structure, serious guitar talent, and a seemingly endless comfort zone.
It’s this forgoing of his comfort zone in favor of risk-taking that sets Apollo apart from most musicians. The decision offers a glimpse at Apollo’s core motivations; rather than opting for a safe return to past successes in an effort to build his brand and popularity, he chooses instead to continue to explore and expand his musical repertoire. It also forms the difference between a promising young talent and a rising star.
DYSFUNCTIONAL // KAYTRANADA
It’s not the first time this group has produced music together, in fact, KAYTRANADA produced “Another Lover,” one of the most exciting tracks on Silk Canvas, VanJess’s 2018 album. Their sound, similar to Shay Lia, pairs effortlessly with Kaytra’s funky basslines and unique synths.
The single was released alongside the instrumental, something that we saw Kaytra try with his 2018 EP. Both versions are great listens, however, VanJess do not perform to their highest level in this collaboration, making the instrumental the more interesting of the two.
I’ve always felt that KAYTRANADA performs best when the focus is on the instrumental, and this track is no exception. It’s not to say that this collaboration isn’t high-quality, just the instrumental better showcases KAYTRANADA’s ability as an artist.
That’s a Rack // Lil Uzi Vert
Uzi has been prolific recently, putting out “leaked” singles like “Free Uzi,” and “Money Keep Coming,” establishing that he actually isn’t done with making music. While he still may be fighting with his label for his ability to release music, he hasn’t quite gotten his juice back.
While “That’s a Rack,” has its moments, including a fun final verse where Uzi goes almost into a whimpering flow, it doesn’t do too much to establish himself as someone that’s about to drop a great album. Eternal Atake has had a significant hype train for what has been at least a year now, but with these lackluster singles Uzi’s put out recently, that train is slowing for all but the most dedicated fans- despite a completely unconfirmed tracklist on Genius.
Not to mention Uzi’s completely transphobic bars. “I was checkin’ my DMs, found out she was a man / I can’t DM, never, ever again / Lucien on my vision, that’s the only thing that’s tran (Yeah).” Really? It’s one thing to see that someone in your DMs isn’t the gender you assumed, but just coming out and saying “that’s the only thing that’s tran” is just being an asshole about it.
There’s been plenty of former Uzi stans on social media disowning him, and while I hope Uzi doesn’t pull this nonsense again, I don’t have a ton of faith given how his 2019 has gone. Let’s just hope he gets over himself.
N Side // Steve Lacy
Following the announcement of two (two!) solo albums from The Internet members in the coming months, Steve Lacy released the first single of his upcoming album, “N Side.” It is reminiscent of what he was putting together on his demo tape — a shockingly full, layered arrangement for a then-18-year-old to have composed, all by his lonesome, on an iPhone.
But where Steve Lacy’s Demo had dazzling dimension and depth, “N Side” is relatively straightforward: what you hear within the first minute is what you get — and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Many artists’ entire careers have been built on friendly, unassuming music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Lacy has established such a high standard with his short yet stunning track record that “N Side” falls just under it by comparison.
“N Side” is an inoffensive, palatable listen, but there’s not much to maintain interest. It feels somewhat like a beat missing its lead rapper/singer — which adds up, considering Lacy’s background is in production. Similar to Zacari’s recent Run Wild Run Free, I worry that Lacy may suffer from Solo Producer Syndrome on his debut, assuming his production skills carry over to vocals and accidentally creating more space with his beats than he can fill with his vocals.
It’s easy (and admittedly, really fun) to hate on DJ Khaled, but he knows what he’s good at. When Khaled drops albums, he fills them to the brim with features, including an A-list and a half to give his beats that final touch. Khaled understands his role as producer/curator, and doesn’t try to stretch his limits. And even Khaled has problems with SPS — I don’t need to remind you about those painful “WE THE BEST” segments of his beats.
Instrumental production and lead singing are two vastly different skill sets, which is why many artists exclusively sing/rap over others’ beats and why many more exclusively produce beats to be sung/rapped over. Lacy is far from bad at anchoring his tracks with vocals, but his best performances have come from his tandem work with other great artists, like The Internet, Kendrick Lamar, or Solange Knowles in the recent When I Get Home. It’s simply that his production is so robust and multifaceted by itself that he’d need to be Beyonce to meet that standard with his vocals. We can’t all be Beyonce, but given his coveted producer status and rising influence, Steve Lacy just might get to work with her soon.