Like any smart musician, Anderson .Paak occasionally turns to others to help refine his work. Still, the multi-dimensional musician didn’t know how to react earlier this year when a creative collaborator told him Oxnard —.Paak’s wild, funky, psychedelic, and seemingly finished new album — still needed tweaking.
“Yeah, that was definitely a big learning experience,” Paak says. Then again, when the collaborator is Dr. Dre, the iconic rapper-producer who not only helped discover .Paak but prominently featured him on his 2015 Compton LP, constructive criticism like that is easier to swallow.
“You need that,” .Paak now admits, “because you’ll go crazy when you’re making these albums if you don’t have nobody to be your co-pilot.” As it turned out, Dre, who is executive producing Oxnard, was spot-on with his assessment. “We went in for a few more weeks and that’s when the bulk of the album actually got done,” .Paak says of the more than 10 new tracks that form the core of the record. “And these were songs that I never thought I’d write.”
Working with Dre — a long-ago cemented legend who, in 2015, became hip-hop’s first billionaire when he and Jimmy Iovine sold their company Beats by Dre to Apple — is crucial for an artist like .Paak. For one, .Paak says, Dre has nothing to lose when cooking up experimental ideas in the studio. And plus, the soulful artist sees himself more in the lineage of James Brown rather than, say, Jeezy. To hear him tell it, .Paak wants nothing less than to “change pop music” entirely.
Malibu, his Grammy-nominated breakout 2016 album, was a sprawling, soulful slice of Stax-inspired sincerity. But .Paak opens the sonic floodgates for Oxnard, which takes its name from his native city. “And that’s all I ever wanted to do,” says the singer, who uses the LP’s opening minutes to veer from Blaxploitation-era soundtrack music (“The Chase”) to classic West Coast gangsta rap (“Headlow”) and brass-anchored soul (“Tints”). Furthermore, he roped in a who’s-who of guest features to flesh out his vision including Kendrick Lamar, Q-Tip, J. Cole, and Pusha-T. In total, it makes for one of the most tantalizing and trippy hip-hop releases of the year. Or as the rapper describes it: “This album is Anderson .Paak with some big-ass brass cajones!”
Like him, .Paak says Dre also wants to cook up off-the-wall songs that alter listeners’ perception of what defines a contemporary hip-hop album. “That’s the one thing working with Dre,” .Paak adds. “It’s not like I’m trapped in there with some record execs or A&Rs who are like ‘What’s the single?’” The nasal-voiced musician lets out one of his trademark hyena-style laughs. “Nah, Dre is just trying to have the most fun. I almost have to scale him back a lot of times. Like ‘Let’s go back to the hook, Dre!’ He just wants to make the craziest music ever. Yeah, it was pure creative bliss.”
At 32, .Paak is, at least by hip-hop standards, a bit old to be having his breakout moment — a coming-out party driven by Malibu dominating critics’ year-end lists, and, in turn, propelling the emcee onto festival stages the world over. Not that .Paak’s swift ascension was for a lack of previous effort. The son of an African-American father and a South Korean mother, .Paak took up drums at 11 but spent the better part of the next two decades pursuing a music career while working odd jobs, logging session time as a drummer, and even selling drugs. Getting married in 2011, and becoming a father shortly thereafter, only further motivated him to make music his livelihood.
Having met Dre, and now living out his dream, .Paak is ready to push his ambition even further. “I’m in the era where everyone’s doing these sh—y-ass Auto Tune-y vibes,” he says bluntly. “So I gotta be unique.” Frankly, the rapper adds, he only wishes more outré albums like Oxnard were less of an outlier. “If it was the ‘70s I’d just have my chest hair out and be wearing cool outfits and I’d be up there [like] James Brown sweating all ugly,” he says. “That was the s—. Now it’s a whole different world.”
Plus, he says, having A-list admirers like Dre or say, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars — for whom he’s opened on their respective tours — the pressure is on to prove he actually belongs. “They’re all hit music-makers,” he notes, before adding with a massive dose of humility, “And me? I’m the guy that’s still gotta put some numbers on the board.”