Sounding frantic, desperate and triumphant all at once, Brandon Paak Anderson yelled himself into our collective consciousness four years ago with an exclamation: “sittin’ ’bout a hundred stories up, like what the fuck?” He was there on ‘All In A Day’s Work’, a standout from Dr. Dre’s fantastic, yet underrated (read, not on Spotify) Compton LP to support Dre’s narrative of success against all odds, but this opening line sounded like so much more than a basic feature. It came from a career musician who had gained very little success until this moment, and he sounded simultaneously as if this is what he’d been waiting for, but also that he was desperate not to let this moment go. Coupled with Dre’s muscular production, it was the start of one of a number of enthralling contributions to a record that announced a star who seemed to have been overlooked for too long.
Anderson Paak capitalised on this momentum, and it is no exaggeration to say that I LOVED his two records that followed. Malibu was an exhibition of all of his talents, as he crooned, rapped, played and grooved his way through an hour of danceable yet personal tracks, while Yes Lawd!, a collaboration with fellow California-based producer Knxwledge, was Malibu’s lighter, funnier opposite – a Madvillain-esque hip-hop romp (no joke, I think I had it on rotation in my car for about three months straight). With the charisma, tunes and sheer energy to back up his considerable talent, the real question is, why did it take Paak so long to be heard?
With several baffling missteps, last year’s Oxnard, the long-awaited follow-up to those two triumphs, indicated that perhaps Paak hasn’t always made shrewd creative decisions (look, Anderson’s devoted 4 minutes to a story about getting a blowjob in a car complete with slurping sounds; Anderson’s singing in fake patois; Anderson’s listing the stereotypical “bitches” he’s banging).
The surprise announcement of Ventura, released less than five months later, is a welcome opportunity for this multiskilled talent to get back on track.
Recorded in tandem with Oxnard, Paak’s fourth record is essentially a straightforward love record that addresses the ups and downs of his decade-long marriage. He chooses to abandon many of the quirks of his previous albums, and early moments suggest that this was a good move. Second track ‘Make It Better’ is the best thing here – a smooth, like-minded collaboration with motown legend Smokey Robinson where Paak sweetly asks his partner to reconnect. It’s the start of a three-song salvo that recalls the hit-rate of Malibu’s first half.
‘Reachin’ 2 Much’ is a danceable two-parter that recalls Malibu standout ‘The Season/Carry Me’, with a string and drum-led intro that gives way to an extended disco number featuring the vocals of another veteran, Lalah Hathaway. ‘Winners Circle’ is a bassy, funky ode to the feeling of desire. Like the best of his music, it effortlessly combines groove and melody, with its star singing and rapping with admirable skill.
Unfortunately though, in terms of songs that could rival those at the top of his canon, this is about as good as it gets. Because there’s filler a-plenty on Ventura. ‘Yada Yada’ is forgettable; ‘Chosen One’, ‘Jet Black’ and ‘Twilight’ are enjoyable, but they pale in comparison to even Oxnard’s highlights. In fact, that’s the issue here. Oxnard had lows, but it also had undisputable highs.
Ventura occupies the middle ground between its most recent predecessors – it’s much less interesting as a result.
The album is also bookended by relatively weak tracks. I feel like I’m in a minority here, but Andre 3000 guest verses (like the one on ‘Come Home’) do very little for me. Yes, he’s one of the greatest rappers of all time, but limiting him to one verse seems to be a move from artists to say “look who I got on the record!” Similarly, Paak’s move to include posthumous Nate Dogg vocals on ‘What do We Do?’ seems to be motivated by a desire to do something just because he can, rather than because he should. Paak has previous here: see middle-of-the-road Kendrick collaboration ‘Tints’ on Oxnard for evidence.
With a talent like Anderson Paak, it’s more frustrating to hear him put out a middling record than one which peaks and troughs. Oxnard wasn’t perfect, but it has more repeat value than the unremarkable Ventura which contains little to hold attention on repeat listening. Paak has stated himself that this is the last California beach he’ll reference through album title, and that symbolises the end of an era. One hopes that he takes the time he needs before embarking on the next; something that will hopefully yield good creative decisions and more exciting results.
Words by Tom Burrows.