Monday, November 19, 2018

album review: 'oxnard' by anderson .paak

Man, expectations were high for this one, weren't they?

And indeed, it's been a bit amusing seeing the fallout from the early reviews of Oxnard come through - a lot of critics had seen tremendous potential and had gotten captivated by Anderson .Paak's infectious charisma and blend of genres, and I'll admit at first, I was definitely one of them. Venice had primed the pump, .Paak had stolen the show on Dr. Dre's Compton album, and following in that wake with some terrific guest performances, I was ready for my mind to be blown with the textured smash that was Malibu, easily one of the best albums of 2016. But I was also kind of lukewarm on his work with Knxwledge on their collaboration that same year, Yes Lawd!, because it exposed just how Anderson .Paak's charisma couldn't save fragmented songs, undercooked ideas, and a sleaziness that could get actively distracting if mishandled. So I was more cautious going into Oxnard - the guest performances looked promising and I had liked what I heard from the singles, but reception has been lukewarm thus far and I was a little surprised that Dr. Dre seemed to have stepped up his production oversight - I guess he wanted to ensure Anderson .Paak finally became the household name he deserves to be and I liked their balance on Compton, but would it work here for Oxnard?

Well folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but I'm going to have to join a lot of folks in saying that Oxnard is not as good as Malibu, and it's hard not to see it as a bit of a letdown, even if you were primed by Yes Lawd!. What once felt natural and freeflowing now feels abortive and stiffer than it should, which for an artist who built his entire appeal coasting on groove seems like a potentially disastrous trajectory. Thankfully, the album is still good enough to get a pass from me - mostly - but what were nitpicks on previous projects have become full-fledged problems, and I'm not sure Anderson .Paak or his handlers are seeing these problems as much as they should.

And let me stress that these problems come from the top down, and actually seem surprisingly easy to identify, so let's start with the structure. Now Anderson .Paak projects, even at their best, can feel a little long and meandering even as they coast on great vibes, but Malibu hit the balance of making it work by giving the project a burnished, warm, charmingly rough-edged palette for the genre-bending, also coupled with snippets from old surfer interviews to give the landscape organic texture. And with Oxnard, also named for a city with the greater Los Angeles area and Anderson .Paak's actual home, you'd expect an even more textured and personal experience... and that's really not what happened. Outside of a brief stutter of radio tuning, the majority of this album ditches that production style for something glossier, and it's hard to avoid the sense that Dr. Dre is putting a firmer hand on the steering wheel, and since we're not getting the incredibly crisp bombast of Compton, it's hard to avoid the sense that his brand of g-funk has become cluttered and over-arranged over the decades. And look, I get why Anderson .Paak might not fight that - we'll come back to why he probably should in a second - but it's the sort of choice that leads him to place 'Headlow', complete with a closing skit where a girl is blowing him in the car that triggers an accident, as the second song of the album. And if that was meant to characterize an album that'll frequently swerve into territory that might not prove nearly as flattering to everyone except him... well, mission accomplished, but I get the feeling that wasn't really the mission!

But the real loss comes in the production, where again, the warm grit has been seared away - and not just from the grooves, but damn near everything, including even some vocal pickups! And sure, Anderson .Paak's voice sounds smoother than ever and there's no denying he's got volumes of charisma splitting the difference between hip-hop, R&B, funk and soul - his uncanny ability to hang onto beats gives him a subtle advantage as a rapper even if it's not his most natural lane - but part of the reason his rougher vocal expressions worked so well was how it complimented the production, and while stripping that away might be an easier sell to the mainstream, it also detracts from his personality. And what's alarming is how it doesn't just happen to him - I don't know what filters they tacked on to the verses from Dre and Pusha-T, but stripping out the guttural, more authoritative tones to make them better fit this production does neither of them any favours, that's what we want to hear from them - hell, even Q-Tip sounds a little awkward against it, and I was desperately hoping his reflective vibe would work! Thankfully Kendrick can hold his own on 'Tints' - awesome song, and all the more proof Kendrick sounds better on funkier grooves than trap - Snoop Dogg can ride this production in his sleep, and even J. Cole doesn't sound bad on an uncharacteristically playful verse - yeah, I have issues with whenever he talks about stalking girls on the internet, but he sounds fine even despite that choppy cymbal groove. But that's the truth about the majority of the grooves on this album: when the percussion doesn't feel ever so slightly blown out and blocky, it's stuttering in a way that Anderson .Paak's flow can tumble against but rarely flatters him, especially with synth and keyboard tones pushing this in a more synthetic direction, and that's before we get the blockier trap elements on 'Smile/Petty' and 'Brother's Keeper' that just don't work at all. Now that's not saying there aren't some good melodies here: 'Tints' is one of the more obvious standouts, but the guitar switch-up into the jingling pianos on '6 Summers' worked well enough, and once the manic horns kicked in on 'Mansa Musa', I really dug it, especially when Anderson .Paak just snapped on the final verse. Unfortunately, you also get the choices that just don't work, like that tinny tone drizzled over 'Saviers Road' that utterly killed the song for me, or the drowned out fizz of 'Who R U?' - one thing's for sure, if you're getting this album, definitely get the bonus tracks 'Sweet Chick' and 'Left to Right' - yeah, the former is a goofy string of hookups and the last is an ass anthem, but 'Sweet Chick' has a great soulful hook from BJ The Chicago Kid and the groove on 'Left To Right' is genuinely awesome, even if I'm not totally convinced Anderson .Paak sells the Jamaican vibe.

But this takes us to the content, and remember how I said a big problem early on was structure? Yeah, if we're looking for where this album slips off the rails at points, it's here in the content, mostly because where Malibu was somewhat grounded in a loose origin and foundation, Oxnard finds Anderson .Paak with the world ahead of him and an abundance of choice. And since he's not one to compromise on ego, it leads to a record that barrels past good sense more often than it should to feed his appetites, which makes a pretty scattered listening experience from song to song. And look, I don't mind the defensiveness in his flexing which he feels he's justly earned, and he sneaks in a few smart points about how for as often as rappers say 'don't shoot' in their bars, it's not like the cops are listening to hip-hop here - hell, as he says on 'Saviers Road', it's not like even his own community pays attention to the faith he tries to sell. And while '6 Summers' is bound to attract a lot of attention for the 'Trump has a love child' lines, it's tempered by the weary acknowledgement that he's probably going to wind up getting away with everything because he's white and rich, a luxury minorities just don't have. And there's a moment of genuine introspection that comes when he tries to grieve for Mac Miller and realizes that he's living just as hard... but it gets a little dissonant when you realize he's not about to stop any time soon, which doesn't quite have the same exultant air that Malibu did. And then there's the women - and look, I've tried to be forgiving about his skeevier side on previous records, and there's at least enough self-awareness on 'Sweet Chick' to imply he's more tactless than misogynistic, and the girl will make him pay for it. But there's no excusing 'Smile/Petty', where he tries to call a girl out for lying to him about what she wants in the relationship, even outright threatening to hook up with other girls to piss her off and auction off the things he bought her before calling women petty, useless, and ruthless leeches. I know this is all framed to be petty, but you can't really get around bars this sour, and it only colours the defensiveness on other songs in an ugly light.

But as a whole... folks, plenty of people have already said Oxnard is a letdown - and even though I was prepared for it, it very much is - but it is still good. But man, if this was the plan to push Anderson .Paak towards the mainstream they missed the mark in a big way with this - the slicker production only flatters on occasion, the writing contains more nuggets of wit than fully fleshed out songs, and Anderson .Paak's charisma can't save an otherwise scattered experience that wants to coast but can't muster the comfort or groove. I'd blame Dre the most for this - he mixed the majority of the album and seems to have completely misunderstood the grooves that work for Anderson .Paak's unique timbre - but really, the direction is misconstrued enough to blame all parties. Still, I'm hoping this is just a misstep rather than a change in direction and again, there's enough quality to keep it good, but it's a 7/10 from me and really only recommended if you're a fan. Otherwise... check out Malibu and Yes Lawd! first, then maybe give this a listen - in this tour of the greater L.A. area, let's just hope this is a speed bump.

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