Thursday, January 14, 2016

album review: 'malibu' by anderson .paak

The place where everyone starts talking about Anderson .Paak - and where many consider his stories begins - is with Compton.

And that's mostly because that was the first place where people actually heard him. He'd been flitting around the indie scene in California for some time under the name Breezy Lovejoy and had some traction with his 2014 album Venice, but it wasn't until Dr. Dre pulled him aboard Compton that he began getting serious exposure. And let's make this abundantly clear: Anderson .Paak is the biggest reason why that album works, operating as the over-eager observer caught up in Dre's hyper-stylized Compton, nearly drowning in it before becoming the spirit of Dre's oft-ignored social conscience. All of that, combined with his presence on The Game's Documentary 2.5 gave me the impression there might be a fair bit more to the guy beyond the distinctive nasal voice, a bit reminiscent of Kendrick but higher pitched and a shade more melodic and elastic.

So I dug into Venice, and wow, talk about an overlooked gem. Taking a west coast flavour with gentle soul, funk and R&B flourishes and sparse oscillating grooves, it's a remarkably chill and quiet listen that managed to be surprisingly sticky thanks to some great melodies, some unpolished but fascinating writing, and Anderson .Paak's earnest and yet surprisingly chill performance. Yeah, it does drag at spots, especially on the back half, but songs like 'Milk & Honey', 'Already', 'Get 'Em Up', 'Off The Ground', and the excellent 'Miss Right' are explanation enough for what Dre saw in this guy. And thus, with an bigger budget, a greatly expanded arsenal of producers and guest stars and riding some pretty impressive momentum, Anderson .Paak seemed set to deliver an even stronger sophomore release. So you can bet I was psyched for this - how did it turn out?

Well, I'll say this: if you listened to that Donnie Trumpet & Chance The Rapper collective project last year Surf and thought, 'Hey, I like this but it'd be so much better if it was well-produced and grounded in the same sort of earnest charm but more consistent', you're going to love this Andersoon .Paak project. Because I'm not going to mince words: this album is goddamn great, a beautifully produced, well-structured, groove-heavy record that creates the L.A. atmosphere so masterfully that it makes me wish I was on the beach in southern California instead of in downtown Toronto in the middle of January. Frankly, I'm stunned this wasn't released in May - talk about the sort of summer record that if well marketed would be absolutely huge. As it is, this is the sort of easy gem you rarely get in January, and I can see this becoming a big favourite of mine throughout the course of 2016, it's a great record.

And the funny thing is that there isn't one element that leaps off the table as the reason why this album clicked for me, and I think the place to start with that conversation is Anderson .Paak himself. If you're going into this album expecting the sort of manic howls he delivered on Compton... well, he's going for something much different here, more soulful and elastic and expressive. Leaping from his nasal, rough-edged croon to bars that coast on the weirder rhythms, Anderson .Paak owns this album, but he does it with the sort of earnest good nature that doesn't come across as flashy. If you're drawing the comparison to Surf, while so much of that album insisted it wasn't trying to be cool, Anderson .Paak is living it, walking the line between genuinely caring about his lyrics and yet his delivery is effortlessly infectious.

And he pulled together some great guest performances too, where probably the least impressive are BJ the Chicago Kid on the hook of 'The Waters' or Talib Kweli throwing down an inspirational segment on the album closer 'Dreamer' that still is very well done. Outside of that, I really liked watching both Schoolboy Q and The Game play against type on their bars, with Schoolboy Q delivering the sort of smooth dance floor hookup on 'Am I Wrong' that I'd usually expect coming from Q-Tip or something. But that's nothing compared to The Game delivering a slice of heartfelt reflection on 'Room In Here', a hookup jam where he actually wants this girl to stick around - considering she's got nothing else really going on - and yet she's put off by his rougher lifestyle, and The Game is let down by it but is playing it with some maturity. It's another subtle thing I like a lot about this record - in terms of a lot of the content, it angles a little older and wiser even despite its earnestness, and the framing is mature enough to cut into the worse situations. And nowhere is that more apparent than on Rapsody's verse on 'Without You', where Anderson .Paak is trying to play it off as a side thing and being pretty condescending about it, only for Rapsody to snap back hard against the judgements on her character and while she's comfortable keeping it casual, there isn't any moral superiority here.

Hell, might as well get into the lyrics and themes here - mostly because they're actually pretty lightweight. The most common bit of iconography is that of the surfer, greatly expanded from where Miguel touched it on Wildheart to span the whole record, from showing the near-death experience of getting caught in the waves to trying to live in the moment and capture whatever hedonistic pleasures he can, even as it's always about to fade - in other words, a damn solid metaphor for an entertainer, who has finally made it out of a few rough years and is now enjoying the crest of the wave. As such, while the album is keen to frame his escapism as necessary in a world that's a lot rougher - especially in L.A. - it also isn't afraid to revel the rush or in the thrill of the struggle, which has its own visceral response that adds another facet to tracks like 'The Season / Carry Me' and 'Put Me Thru'. Beyond that, most of this record doesn't go that deep - love songs, sex songs, often framing Anderson .Paak as a little too earnest for his own good, which helps undercut how lightweight this record is. When he gets most intense is his desire to hold on and ride out his fame - like an experienced surfer, he's got a hold of the wave, and he doesn't want to be pulled off by someone inexperienced, even if his own cluelessness might do it anyway. And if I'm going to criticize this record, it'd be here: good framing can only excuse so much, and a song like 'Silicon Valley', where he's trying to find the heart of this girl behind her boob implants in one of the silliest songs you'll hear all year, it goes right to the line and is only really saved by the exasperated girl telling him to just fuck her already. And yet Anderson .Paak is smart enough to not rely on detachment - not only does he and the rest of the world find it disingenuous, there's too much in life to be experienced and passed on to ignore it. There are other lyrical quibbles - 'Heart Don't Stand A Chance' can read as a little presumptuous, a few songs feel a bit underwritten - but really, that's minor.

And besides, it's not like the lyrics are the primary focus of this album, and that takes us to the instrumentation and production. Anderson .Paak definitely put his increased budget to good use, because the balanced production and grooves on this record are absolutely excellent, where the flow and ease of this instrumentation is damn near seamless from track to track - and for a record that goes over an hour, that's saying something. Much of this record has a distinctive West Coast flavor - thicker beats against sparse percussion and languid soul and 90s R&B samples, with plenty of breathy, multi-tracked vocals - but what caught me off-guard was how much genuine funk and soul crept onto this album in the guitars and especially the bass work. This is a record that might start a bit slow on 'The Bird' with that subtle guitar and piano with the horn accent, but isn't afraid to bring in a tighter groove or even get weirder like the jazzier drums or expanding rubbery keys on 'Heart Don't Stand A Chance', or those buzzed out synth transitions on 'Silicon Valley' after the chorus. Not going to lie, though, when this album really jumps out at me are when the guitar and bass texture get most prominent, like on the sharp staccato of 'Put Me Thru' or that high guitar flutter against the clap groove on 'Parking Lot' or that bass-heavy momentum against the surf-rock of 'Come Down'. And that's before we get songs that are just smooth as hell, like the scratchy, muted vibe of 'The Waters' or what sounds like a lo-fi xylophone on 'Without You' or the piano on 'Room In Here'. And then we get songs that might as well be retro-throwbacks like the fantastic disco bass groove on 'Am I Wrong' or the soulful funk of 'Celebrate' - Anderson .Paak outright mentions in one of his samples finding the balance between old and new, and he nails it here, where the production is modern but has the grit and texture of knowing its past. Now I'm not going to say I love all of the production - I wasn't wild about the pitch-shifting when it does show up on this record, and it does take away from both 'Lite Weight' and 'Your Prime', especially in the former case with the lo-fi synth a bit off-key and in the latter with a very staccato beat that feels a little overcompressed around the cymbals. 

But really... look, I'm not going to dance around this: Malibu by Anderson .Paak is such an easy, thoroughly enjoyable listen that has great texture, groove and feeling behind it, earnest but with enough grounded maturity to build something beneath it to actually construct some damn great songs. It's not a classic or an incredible listen - there are enough missteps in production and lyrics that do keep it from completely blowing my mind, but it is a ton of fun and definitely a record I see myself returning to a lot this year. For me, an easy 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, Anderson .Paak may have gotten his break with Compton, but Malibu is a plain sign he deserves far more attention - let's give it to him.

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