Sometime around the middle of this year, I realized that a surprisingly large proportion of the new music I loved was being made by one person: Southern Californian recording artist and producer Anderson .Paak. Paak isn’t a newcomer, per se; he’s been around since 2012, when he released his debut album under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy, and his 2014 album Venice generated some minor buzz among people who pay more attention to contemporary music than I do. But I first became aware of him right around the time a lot of other people seemed to: late 2015, when he signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records and contributed to several tracks on his new label head’s comeback record Compton.
From that description, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Anderson .Paak is a rapper–and he is, at least under the expanded definition of what constitutes a “rapper” in 2016. He contributed a freestyle (above) as part of XXL magazine’s annual “Freshman Class,” alongside other such unconventional artists as Desiigner and Lil Dicky; he was also recognizably rapping on the first track I heard from him, “Unique” by yet another generically hybrid artist, Washington, DC’s GoldLink. But that’s not all he’s doing: even on his most conventionally hip-hop songs, Paak’s flow is like a more musical, less rhythmically complex version of Kendrick Lamar‘s rasp on To Pimp a Butterfly, with a little bit of Southern soul shouting and even a dash of Morris Day‘s cartoonish jive in the mix. On “Come Down” (below), the most recent single from his album Malibu, he certainly struts like a rapper, but the groove he’s tapping into comes from a tradition that far precedes hip-hop as a genre.
And that, I suppose, is the heart of Anderson .Paak’s appeal. Like the aforementioned Kendrick, he’s undeniably contemporary, but with a deep sense of musical history: he was, in fact, recently embroiled in a minor “beef” with viral trap mumbler Lil Yachty over the responsibility of artists to be “students of the game first.” Personally, I’m not all that interested in comparing the two; I think there’s room for Anderson .Paak and Lil Yachty. But Paak’s insistence that young artists know their history says a lot about where his own work is coming from. Malibu bounces from rap-influenced heaters like “Come Down” to soulful, jazz-inflected ballads like “The Bird” to the expansive alt-hip-hop suite “The Season/Carry Me” (below), and sounds equally convincing on all fronts. It’s the work of an artist who’s deeply invested in his influences, but not beholden to them. In concert, Paak is just as versatile: moving back and forth from the front of the stage to behind the drums as the situation–and his sense of showmanship–demands.
Malibu may very well be my favorite album of 2016 so far–which is saying something, since it came out way back in January. But even outside of that album, Paak has kept coming to my attention. There he was in May with a feature for electronic producer KAYTRANDA:
Then there he was again in August with rapper Mac Miller:
Most recently, Paak has released a second full-length, Yes Lawd!, with Stones Throw producer Knxledge as NxWorries. It’s also great: a glitchier, druggier, less organic incarnation of Paak’s laid-back hip-hop soul.
I’m not gonna lie: it’s been a while since I’ve been as excited about a new artist as I am about Anderson .Paak. His blend of vintage influences with contemporary sensibilities is pretty much tailor-made for my tastes, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. And when it comes time to put together my “Best of 2016” list for Dystopian Dance Party, the only question at this point is how many separate times Paak is going to show up.