Review: Anderson .Paak – Oxnard

I can’t recall any artist having as massive a breakthrough in 2016 as Oxnard musician Anderson .Paak. His critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated album Malibu, as well as his Yes Lawd! collaboration with underground producer Knxwledge (under the moniker NxWorries), displayed a blossoming artist who was as visionary as he was old-school.

Beyond the typical love/relationship ballads, Malibu was unique in that it was driven by a hunger and an inspiration we don’t often hear in contemporary R&B/neo-soul music. From his reflections on his tumultuous upbringing, to his perseverance through hardships (such as homelessness), to his admonitions to not take life for granted and “celebrate” the simple things, Malibu was as emotionally compelling as it was aesthetically pleasing.

Anderson .Paak’s music seems to operate on a continuum, with one end dipping into his West Coast hip-hop influences while the other appeals to his soul and jazz sensibilities; his latest album, Oxnard, definitely leans much more towards hip-hop than anything he’s released thus far. Nearly every song, other than “Tints,” “Anywhere,” and “Trippy,” relies heavily on Anderson’s rapping abilities.

Admittedly, this change of pace comes as a surprise, but it seems that artistic ambition is what’s driving Anderson to re-market himself on Oxnard as a rapper who can sing, as opposed to a singer who can rap. “I feel like ambition is missing from today’s music,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. In a different interview, with Entertainment Weekly, he added, rather bluntly: “I’m in the era where everyone’s doing these sh***y-ass Auto Tune-y vibes. So I gotta be unique.”

It’s clear that he has a vision for his art, and I appreciate him for that; sometimes (not always) it feels like contemporary musicians get so caught up in the wave of rapid musical output that there’s little time to focus on creating a really cohesive, coherent, thought-out body of music. “This is the album I dreamed of making in high school, when I was listening to [Jay-Z]’s The Blueprint, The Game’s The Documentary, and [Kanye West’s] The College Dropout,” he said, in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview.

But while I can commend him for his dedication to artistic evolution, and while Oxnard is certainly one of this year’s more solid hip-hop releases, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly some of that ambition lies. Other than the fact that the more soulful aspects of his music — which people like me fell in love with on Malibu and Yes Lawd! — are unfortunately lacking here, Oxnard also seems to lack the kind of heart and “soul” that drove his previous album.

Oxnard features more duds than we are probably accustomed to hearing from the SoCal musician, none quite as glaring of a misstep as the closing track “Left to Right.” From its musty production to Anderson’s inexplicable use of Caribbean patois, it’s a mystery why this even made the cut; the album would’ve been much better served ending on “Sweet Chick.” In addition, the  tracks that occupy the middle of the tracklist, such as the single “Who R U” and “Saviors Road,” come across as filler, as neither approaches the masterful songwriting, charismatic rapping, or holistic entertainment of some of his peak hip-hop tracks, like “Bubblin.”

Of course, I’d hate to judge this album solely on the basis that it “isn’t like his previous music,” or give the impression that this isn’t a good album, because Oxnard is definitely a success. It certainly isn’t Malibu or Yes Lawd!, but its goal was never to repeat history. From Venice up till now, none of Anderson’s albums have sounded the same; again, that’s his artistic ambition at work. It would’ve been regressive for him to try to copy and paste Malibu‘s formula here.

With that being said, Anderson is at his best on the songs “Tints” and “Anywhere,” when he’s embracing the tenets of soulful, feel-good music. The bouncy production of “Tints” harkens back to  “Am I Wrong,” another one of his groovy midtempo jams. “Tints” contains the kind of blissful soul-funk vibes that make you want to ride out on a sunny day with the windows rolled all the way down — which I guess is a little ironic, given that the song is about hiding behind tinted windows. And “Anywhere” is a smooth slow-jam whose production and lyrics all serve as tribute to ’90s era G-Funk and R&B.

Perhaps the song that carries the strongest ethos is “6 Summers,” which is one of the more overtly political statements Anderson has made in his career. Besides the unusual first half of the song, the second half has him making some of his most decisive statements concerning gun violence in America, in support of gun control (“Reform, reform shoulda came sooner” & “Take them AK’s up outta these inner city streets”) and in protest of mass shooters (“We need more peace and less lone gunners” & “Why he have to shoot the whole school up?”). Anderson’s shots at are much more potent here than they were in the first half, as he takes aim and fires at executive negligence (“Dear Mr. President, it’s evident that you don’t give a damn”) and the failures of the justice system (“All this fuckin’ evidence and if it ever make it to the stand / you know they gon’ let ‘em go, bro”).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also highlight just how much Oxnard is elevated by its featured guests. The hip-hop features — Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Snoop Dogg, J. Cole, Q-Tip, etc. — deliver quality features (for the most part) and help flesh out the concepts of their respective songs. Whereas Anderson’s previous releases felt more like him mostly owning center stage for himself, the numerous guests here help Oxnard feel like a movie with an ensemble cast, all of whom are performing at their peak.

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