Anderson .Paak’s ‘Oxnard’ Is a Cinematic, Socially Conscious Marvel

Anderson .Paak is something of an enigma in the hip-hop world. His moniker, with its oddly placed period, is completely representative of the bold disregard for convention that characterizes his music. Moreover, the fact that he rose to such prominence in a genre that isn’t particularly known for embracing outre acts is testament to talent trumping trends. Paak made such an impression on Dr. Dre that he ended up featuring on a staggering six of the tracks comprising Dre’s 2015 album “Compton.” Paak’s latest album “Oxnard,” named after the coastal California city where he grew up, enlists Dre himself on production duties, along with an impressive roster of guest features. It’s a record that showcases an artist well-versed in urban musicology, with vivid instrumental soundscapes, unfiltered, evocative lyrics, and a one-of-a-kind blend of rapping and singing.  

Opener “The Chase” draws from rich musical traditions, rooted in seventies funk stylings, with organic breakbeats, wah-wah guitars, interjections of “Yeah!” meandering flute melodies, and soulful vocals from Kadhja Bonet. It evokes the protest music of artists like Gil Scott Heron, and the lyrics are appropriately uplifting, with Paak singing, “Hold on and ride for your own / Together in spirit form.” Next up, “Headlow” is a riot of busy, clankering percussion, continuing the seventies instrumental vibe. In the line “Baby hit the nerve like a Pepsi,” Paak cleverly alludes to one of the most ridiculously ill-advised commercials of all time — a 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner that equated the gesture of sharing a Pepsi with some type of social revolution.  The lyrics are otherwise ostensibly about nothing more than, well, a “road head” session that perhaps gets a little too climactic, judging from the sound of a car crashing at the end of the track. On the other hand, the largely open-ended words could likely be metaphorical, with the refrain, “Just keep your head low,” perhaps expressing the importance of keeping a low profile, lest you find yourself a victim of profiling. This is a theme continued in the following song, “Tints,” in which repeatedly declares, “I need tints (windows tinted,) with comical aplomb. He emphasizes the importance of privacy, saying, “Paparazzi wanna shoot ya,” with the highly-charged connotations of “shoot” suggesting something graver. Kendrick Lamar even makes an appearance, and sums things up succinctly, claiming he needs “tints,” “So I can live with a peace of mind / Without niggas takin’ a piece of mine,” a rhyme that nods to a similar lyric from Andre 3000 on Outkast’s “Return of the G” from 1998’s “Aquemini.”

“Who R U” is a supremely funky cut, with a constant splattering of handclaps and echoing thuds, over which Paak raps with a laid-back, singsong-ey swagger, dropping a rare machine gun-speed verse, and a call and response chorus that’s keeping with the blaxploitation era cinematic quality that’s been clearly established at this point. “6 Summers” is very much the apex of the album, an ambitious cut with distinct, disjointed phases, and Paak getting unabashedly political while still maintaining the trademark casual delivery that seems to defy the gravity of the subject matter. The song begins with an infectious bassline and dub reggae-style adlibs cloaked in reverb. Paak calls out Trump by name in the opening lines, and later goes on to charge, “’Cause there’s money to made in a killin’ spree / That’s why he tryna start a war on the Twitter feed.” The titular phrase comes in the context of the lines, “ This shit gon’ bang for at least six summers / But ain’t shit gon’ change for at least three summers.” Presumably, the song was written earlier this year, leaving three summers until the current presidential term comes to an end. Toward the end comes a refrain of “And so I smoke, drink, just to cope with the pain / Get the Coltrane and the Kobain,” which comes across as slightly awkward, as it’s unclear with how much irony this casual excuse for addiction is being made.

“Mansa Musa” is an upbeat, energetic banger, referring to Musa I, the tenth sultan of Mali, who reigned during a period during which Mali was the world’s largest producer of gold. It’s yet another Afrocentric mention in an album that’s rich with esoteric allusions. Dr. Dre drops a verse, explaining his low profile as of late by stating, “I need to dumb it down for this hip hop scene / Can only come around for this type shit here.” One could hardly hope for a bigger compliment from a bigger name in hip-hop. “Brother’s Keeper” continues the retro soul vibe, with spliced samples of live bands that recall RZA’s production style on his Bobby Digital releases. The title refers to featured guest Pusha T’s brother No Malice, the other half of rap duo Clipse, who quit the game after becoming a born-again Christian. There are some rather awkward lyrics like, “If Jesus would’ve had a better lawyer would he have to see the cross.” Some of these snippets are downright catchy, but don’t exactly seem like they were carefully thought through. Pusha T’s aggressive, authoritative flow is an effective foil for Paak’s smooth swagger, making for an especially dynamic track.

Paak keeps the star power coming, starting the next song, “Anywhere,” with the unmistakable voice of the Doggfather himself. A few lines in, Snoop Dogg comments, “This the beat that make me reminisce on G-Funk / Three summers before The Chronic hit the streets.” There is indeed a G-funk feel to this track, which makes it a slight diversion from the prevailing ‘70s-inspired sonic theme of the album. Still, the song is peppered with free-flowing singing, and a rawness of production that keeps the mood flowing seamlessly. “Trippy” begins with a sample of a conversation between Johnny Carson and Rodney Dangerfield, in which the latter says, “One girl told me, ‘Come on over, there’s nobody home’ / I went over, there was nobody home!” What follows is meditation of having nothing, having it all, and the vast nebulous space in between. J Cole drops a verse, calling attention to the phoniness of rappers who boast incessantly about nonexistent wealth. In a genre that couldn’t be more inflated and bombastic, this is an overdue message. Behind all the glammed-out selfies and elaborate instagram stories, there’s often a stark emptiness, and this song captures the idea effectively, without coming across as too preachy.

“Cheers” features a shout out to the Late Mac Miller, whom Paak has openly expressed his admiration for, claiming he “felt like Mac helped finish the album.” The song is full of sultry, layered vocal harmonies, and Q-Tip drops a particularly reflective verse in his signature, quirkily syncopated flow, followed by a ridiculous ‘80s saxophone solo that seems to underscore the nostalgic bent with a smirk. “Sweet Chick” is a bawdy bit about different types of female stock characters, with some rather hilarious lines like, “Got a yogi bitch and she natural, she hate to wear deodorant,” upon the mention of which a screaming, cursing lady emerges and shuts Paak up. Finally, “Left to Right” finds Paak putting on a whole new voice, sinking the entire song in Patwak, and bringing a riot of an album to a particularly festive culmination.

There isn’t really anyone in the current hip-hop landscape that sounds quite like Anderson .Paak. Moreover, Paak seems admirably, almost incomprehensibly, unshackled by any obligation to fit into a palatable mode. “Oxnard” runs like a madcap, caution-to-the-wind hip-hop indulgence that’s catchy and immersive enough by its own idiosyncratic merits to have no need for any other stilting. It revives a sound that all but vanished after the seventies, but without wallowing in any type of pathetic retro posturing. Rather, it comes across as a fresh and natural revival of a cherished aesthetic, presented in a way that sounds simultaneously classic and contemporary. It’s a star-studded affair, and unlike so many releases today, the guest appearances are all actually substantive, rather than empty cameos. It’s a cohesive album, with a palpable, yet elusive, cinematic thread running throughout, and a wildly entertaining and original release overall.

Oxnard” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.