The new pastor of The First Church of Boom Baptists is Anderson .Paak. The Los Angeles-based rapper/singer/producer/songwriter mixes Donny Hathaway's soul with D'Angelo's musicianship, and crafts songs that capture some of the evocative spirit of Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, and Curtis Mayfield. All the while, hip-hop remains his stylistic bedrock because .Paak is just as much Kendrick Lamar as Eddie Kendricks, whose songs recall recently resurrected soul obscurity like Shuggie Otis and the inarguable legend Otis Redding. His well-regarded sophomore effort "Malibu" is already a career-defining project, even though it seems like his sermon is just getting started.
I first heard "Malibu" not long after its January release coming back from a pick-up basketball game in the backseat of my friend's car. As I clutched a burrito bowl and a bag filled with no-budget bourbon, my friend plugged his cassette adapter into his phone and allowed .Paak's album to captivate everybody inside that purple Mazda. In a car, a little buzzed, with friends—a moment rife with the kind of small details that make up .Paak's autobiographical, socially-conscious blues-rap—was, in retrospect, the ideal way to discover "Malibu." It's a multifaceted album that begins with details of his hard times as a child and wraps up with a race through adolescent memories far less chilling than, say, his gambling-addicted mother, but no less significant, because the personal is always also the political: "Since a little baby, skating and boogie boards and raiding your cookie jar/ My radio analog/ I wanted them Nikes/ Mama got me Lugz," .Paak raps at one point.
"Malibu" begins with 'The Bird's' beautiful horns, keys, and strings over which the 30-year-old California native recounts his experiences growing up with his sisters and his best friend as a latchkey kid in Oxnard. He touches on the hardships of having an incarcerated father, a mother who works as a farmer but struggles with a gambling addiction, and a family history of incarceration. He appreciates these experiences, comprehends the ways they are bittersweet, and mentions musicians who have informed his music, painting a complete portrait of who he is: "My sister used to sing to Whitney/ My mama caught the gambling bug/ We came up in a lonely castle/ My papa was behind them bars/ We never had to want for nothing/ Said, 'all we ever need is love.'"
What follows is a quartet of tracks ('Heart Don't Stand A Chance,' 'The Waters,' 'The Season/ Carry Me,' and 'Put Me Thru') reminiscent of the neo-soul suites of the Soulquarians, carried by nostalgic hip-hop production, funky basslines, and .Paak's conversational rapping. The music video for 'The Waters' and 'The Season/Carry Me,' meanwhile, is less ruminative, with .Paak navigating a busy, psychedelic, animated world and, at one point, encountering a Donald Trump monster made of trash. It's an ambitious album that highlights the rigors of garnering respect while progressing musically, dodging the pitfalls of fame—typical hip-hop tropes—and often ties this struggle to autobiographical matters of the heart and the workaday concerns about keeping his family intact. It seems like the logical next sophisticated step after Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" from last year, a rapper who is a peer, presumably an influence, and if not, then surely a new kind of rap star who made it easier for .Paak to breakthrough.
In 2011 (a year .Paak describes as "the year Drizzy and Cole dropped/ before K Dot had it locked" on 'The Season/Carry Me'), he was homeless with a wife and newborn son after losing his job at a California weed farm. This was, the story goes, a transformative moment for .Paak that tested his will and moved him to keep on pursuing music. Along with making personal music under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy, he put in the work as a drummer touring with "American Idol" success Haley Reinhart, a strange gig for this musician, perhaps, and maybe one that's even "beneath" him, but one that, it would seem, taught him a great deal about making songs rather than tracks and compositions instead of beats. His 2013 project "Cover Art" commented on white bands of yesteryear capitalizing off and repackaging black music by creating soulful renditions of white rock songs from Neil Young, The Postal Service, Toto, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The White Stripes, and The Beatles. The next year he released "Venice," his first full-length as Anderson .Paak, now understood as a widescreen, trap-tinged prequel to "Malibu."
Due to "Venice," .Paak was picked to work on Dr. Dre's 2015 return, "Compton." He contributed to six tracks, including 'Animals,' a Baltimore Uprising-influenced track that was meant for "Malibu" but fit Dre's vision for "Compton" as an album that would diagnose America's racism from the long history of the cruel LAPD to events in Baltimore following Freddie Gray's death. .Paak sings the hook to 'Animals' as if he were perched atop the Enoch Pratt library at Penn-North last April observing Baltimore's pain and shaking his head like, "damn," at national news vultures: "And please don't come around these parts/ and tell me that we all a bunch of animals/ The only time they wanna turn the cameras on/ Is when we're fuckin' shit up."
As .Paak and Dre consider black life in America, they recall Donny Hathaway's 'Little Ghetto Boy' and through that, Dr. Dre's own g-funk rendition, 'Lil' Ghetto Boy.' And on 'Animals,' .Paak raps a verse that recalls another '90s West Coast rap legend, 2Pac: "Bullets still ringing, blood on the cement/ Black folks grieving, headlines reading, trying to pay it no mind/ You just living your life/ Everyone is a witness, everyone got opinions/ Got a son of my own, look him right in his eyes/ I ain't living in fear, but I'm holding him tight." The song connects the Baltimore uprising of 2015 to the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 to Watts' and Baltimore's similar unrest in the sixties.
On 'The Dreamer,' "Malibu's" closing track, we hear a more staid take on the same concerns. There, .Paak calls himself "a product of the tube and the free lunch," nodding to his '90s kid come-up as well as the Black Power origins which benefitted him and other L.A. kids by way of the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for School Children Program model. Guest rapper Talib Kweli makes the idea more apparent in a guest verse with references to Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It's a complex closer for an album full of songs marked by vulnerability, introspection, social awareness, and redemption.
All that was apparent after just one listen in that purple Mazda last winter. And like .Paak himself, I started thinking about the ways that the past and present merge together and don't seem to be that different. His voice reminded me of musicians my father used to try and teach me about, and the novelty of unanticipated discovery in 2016—when so much is curated for us—was strong; it sent me back to catching a new track on BET or the Box.
I couldn't help but think about how cool it was to just come across good music without actively searching for it. Stumbling upon "Malibu" had me imagining what it would be like if Syl Johnson sung about freedom on Soundcloud back in 1970 or the mania that would ensue after cryptic "#Tutu" tweet from Miles Davis 'round about midnight in the summer of 1986. All at once I hear the exciting shock of the new and storied black artistry of the past.
Anderson .Paak plays the Baltimore Soundstage on June 17.