Anderson .Paak's New Direction: "Oxnard"
by Noah Adaikkalam
Oxnard (2018), Anderson .Paak’s latest studio album, was released November 16th. Andy is a very important artist to me. Malibu (2016) is my most listened to album, and “Put Me Thru” my most listened song last year. Going into this project’s release, I wanted something similar to the Malibu/Venice sound that he previously produced; a sort of beachy accompaniment that relies on homemade instrumentals and Andy’s rhythmic singing/rapping over his drums. All the songs told stories, lyrically interesting and rhythmically executed.
Oxnard kept up the same musicality, but took the sound in a different direction. I wasn’t down for it at first, really only making it to “Who R U?” before setting the album aside. I cycled through this about three times before finally sitting down and taking preliminary notes on all the songs after “Who R U?”. It became clear to me that the talent is still there, but the execution missed certain aspects.
The record starts with the sound of a car door opening and closing. A radio shifts from station to station, as an Arabic guitar riff and wind chimes introduce Kadhja Bonet’s silky voice. Then track goes silent and .Paak picks up the drums again, a refreshing sound. Bonet sings in an ominous, somewhat Arabic sounding tune. Andy’s bars come in harder than expected joined by suspenseful sounding guitar chords and strings, mixing with horns. The strings are all provided by Bonet, setting themes up for the album through her dominating lyrics and instrumentation. This is the first song with a distinct shift, an opening that contains straight rap then instrumentally expands into .Paak singing the song through to its end. Bonet’s presence offers a more complicated (more layer and instruments) sound than Jose Rios and Kelsey Gonzalez, the guitarist and bassist of .Paak’s band The Free Nationals. This was the primary sound on his other projects: Malibu (2016) and Venice (2014). It’s definitely new, an unexpected opener in my opinion, not something I am entirely comfortable with. My mental map of Anderson’s music has the harder rap tracks a few songs into the album. It is not bad, but I expected more singing and less rapping.
This song sounds good. It starts with an unconventional cling-clangy intro, and is met by up and coming R&B singer, Norelle. The bass and guitar are influenced by Rios and Gonzalez, which shows in the song, as the rhythm and chords are a refreshing callback to their earlier work. Lyrically, the entire song is about getting head while driving on the I-9 freeway, as a distorted voice speaks at the beginning. Not to say that Anderson hasn’t had songs like this before, it’s just that placing the track second on the album felt a bit abrasive. Musically, I love it. The guitar and bass are familiar, bread and butter .Paak: jazzy almost funky. The singing is great, Norelle/Andy singing their parts on top of eachother for the most part, creating a really interesting sound that highlights both of their voices. Lyrically, I wanted more, and the 35 second outro monologue was uncomfortable to listen too.
This song was released a month ago as a sampler to the album. The funky roots are there, Andy back singing and THEN rapping. It is a good extension of the sound that I have grown comfortable with in my years of listening to. The first verse is solid. .Paak is comfortable in this sound and you can feel it.
The Kendrick verse kills, as expected. It comes in early, about a minute and a half into the track. He sings his own backups and then raps all over, crushing it through and through. His flow is amazing and he rides the funk beats behind him in that distinct laid back yet very thoughtful Kendrick style. Andy comes in for another verse after Kendrick. Funk keys and chords are perfectly interwoven through the beat, captained by .Paak’s own drumming. The guitar, done by Rios, and the keys by Rob Lewis, a producer out of Queens mesh really well.The song really knows its sound and holds the funky roots the entire way through.
The song is about avoiding paparazzi, needed more tints on your windows, and struggling between enjoying the money of fame but wanting more privacy. Both Kendrick and .Paak specifically calling out the ways they flaunt their wealth.
Norelle, comes in again, helps Andy sing the song out. This is probably my favorite song on the album, the Kendrick, .Paak colab is timeless.
“Who R U?”
This song is mostly percussional, which is a new direction for .Paak, and not something that I was anticipating hearing. Similar to “Bubblin”, the single he dropped earlier this year, .Paak is flexing in this song, focused on stunting on rappers. The beat is heavily percussive with very little instrumentation. Dre has some vocals here and there throughout the song. It sounds weird to me, like it’s off a different record. Andy’s comfort in the funk/jazz/rap sound shows, and results in songs where I feel that I can hear him having fun. “Tints” is a perfect example of this. Similar to the opening track, it is a bold shift in direction for .Paak’s sound, and something that really set is sound apart was the talented guitar, bass, and keys going on under him. There is very little of that on this track. While I see the direction he was going it, I actually think it makes his sound less unique and didn’t work.
Lyrically, the song is about wealth. He is flexing on what he is able to flaunt, while calling out other who can’t and who aren’t as tough as they say they are. It’s a trend on the tracks, similar to “Tints” as if to look back on how far he’s come and relish what he has now. I don’t mind that, but I feel like Andy’s lyrical capabilities expand beyond just money.
“6 Summers” follows the previous sound. The guitar, by Gonzalez, is much more prominent. But the opening lyric “Trumps got a love child and I hope that bitch is buck wild” is just a kind of What? moment. The way he sings it, the way it’s delivered, the way it mixes, just seems to be odd. The heavy percussion doesn’t mix well with the repeating guitar riff and clapping and maracas, Andy has to screaming over it. That gives the track almost a punk feel.
Then the word “Summers” echoes and the song shift entirely. Minor chords, with tribal sounding light percussion replace the guitar riff and heavy percussion. Anderson starts singing, and moves into a sort of talk-rapping. Gonzalez's bass gets more funky. The second part is a hell of a track. There is even an injection of social justice: “We need more peace and less lone gunners,”
“Dr. Mr President it’s evident that you don’t give a damn,” and “'Cause there's money to be made in a killin' spree / that's why he tryna start a war on the Twitter feed.” Then he refocuses at the end of the chorus with: “This shit gon bang at least six summers, but ain’t shit gon change for at least three summers”. He takes a clear political stance, a message that is very meaningful and he does so comfortable under familiar chords and beats. The second half of this song is amazing, a strong and definitive sound that .Paak has mastered. The first half still feels underdeveloped and uncomfortable.
The song opens with the sound of a tuned up church organ, followed by a small church choir that repeats the line “Here I go again” throughout. It leans on a solid guitar riff, simple, that repeats in the background. The lyrics are spiritual, at one point paraphrasing the Lord’s prayer, which adds a gospel vibe that I am very much down for it’s something like the first half of “The Seasons/ Carry Me” off Malibu. It’s a solid contribution, a good transition track, nothing too crazy.
The bassline moves so seamlessly I almost mistook it for the new Free Nationals song. The choral singing reenters. Andy goes back and forth between leading the chorus and singing with em. The song is dedicated to a girl, detailing his struggles with monogamy. The lyrics questioning the concept, fighting with it as a construction, reflecting the pain it causes him and lashing out at himself. I like the speed the song moves at, and the lyrics, while dramatic, are funny to listen too.
Then it shifts into the second half. The bass still plays its role, but the beat changes up and the song gets heavier. .Paak starts to complaining rather than just talking through it. SiR comes out in some of the background vocals. SiR, and a recorded .Paak sing in the background, while Andy talk-sings his way through the story, the bassline matching his singing. This sound is not exactly a new sound for him, rather a 50/50 of the jazzy bass lines mixing with the heavier funky ones.
It sounds like an intersection of“What More Can I Say” off Yes Lawd! (2016), the NxWxrries project, and the second half of “The Seasons/ Carry Me” (2016).
.Paak opens up, then the verse from Cocoa Sarai hits the ground running again, making this a really challenging transition for me to get on board with. Dre is featured on the lyrics, he sings in a weird accent, his general sound and flow a square peg to the circle hole that is the song. There is still a good back track in the form of a brass bass line that makes the song bump, but it’s a really tough transition to swallow. It’s a more upbeat party song that starkly contrasts the sound arch of the previous two songs. The previous two songs brought the energy down and this is a somewhat rigid yank back up.
Yet the song is aptly named. Mansa Musa, being arguably the most wealthy man in history, wealth derived from Gold, something Andy has a lot of. The sound of this track meshes well with lyrics about stunting, and comparing yourself to the richest man in history, yet I don’t think it fits in with the album. As a stand alone track, it’s not half bad, I still think the bassline is a bit to overpowering, drowning out the other sounds, specifically one really amazing sax riff, and making the sound feel like an elephant waddling back and forth. The screws need to be tightened, and the musical real estate redistributed more fairly.
This track expands upon the sonic direction taken earlier. It’s a much more mainstream sound, featuring trap snares that come in with a loud, somewhat directionless choral backing. Pusha T comes in halfway through the song talking as Anderson keeps the chorus going. The focus on the concept of being his “Brothers Keeper”. The concept, taking care of your ‘brothers,’ is highly relevant in the industry today given how many artists we’ve lost this year, specifically Mac Miller, who was close to .Paak. Pusha’s verse, both in the way his voice sounds and in the lyrical content, calls out how much of a bitch life can be, talking about the hardships just in a different way.
Similar to “6 Summers” and “Smiles/Pretty” the second half of the song breaks down, being reclaimed by Andy’s sound. Kadhja Bonet enters with a laid back guitar riff, cushioning us and contrasting how hard the last song and half came in. Andy repeats “I will never let you go.”
The second track of “Smiles/Pretty”, “Mansa Musa” and this one don’t seem to have a solidified place in the album. Each three tracks has a somewhat similar sound, but they are missing a connect track or sound, the gap in sound being slightly to different from track to track. The lyrics work song for song, minus Dre’s one weird verse in an accent, but if I want to look at the project as one big arch of sound, these three stand out. They have a much more percussive, commercial sound that .Paak feels uncomfortable in.
Snoops voice is the first thing you here, calling for the intro. With the constant g-funk vibe that follows Snoop around, he goes into a historical telling of rap music from his perspective, reflecting on the days before The Chronic (1992). The music is gorgeous, another amazing bassline with great keys that live in minor chords. As Andy takes the verse back he sings through the song. The Last Artful, Dodgr, a musical rap goddess out of Portland, mixes her vocal perfectly with Anderson’s. The main chorus is “Let’s get back to all that ghetto shit we love” reflecting on his earlier years the same way Snoop is. This song embodies the spirit of the title: “Oxnard” Oxnard, of course, being where .Paak grew up. At certain points throughout the song the two almost sound like they are the same person. The bassline reliant, G-Funk sound, that reminds me a lot of “Ain’t No Fun” off of Snoop's first studio record Doggystyle (1992), is a new evolution of .Paaks sound that I love. This one functions more smoothly, as all of the composers’ sounds mix together really, really well. Andy seems comfortable, something I would attribute to the G-Funk being something he grew up listening to and admiring, as well as having Snoop on the track to help him with the sound.
A lengthy sample comes in with Rodney Dangerfield and Johnny Carson talking back and forth about having no luck with girls. Then a guitar riff paves the way before Andy comes in singing. It feels like Andy is singing directly to the listener. He sings this song in, rap-sings his bars, and then sings the chorus. This is the by far the slowest song on the album, a change in pace that I really appriciate, and the downshift in sound between “Anywhere” and “Cheers” works perfectly.
J. Cole also does his patented punctual rapping, bringing back the patented 2014 Forest Hills Drive sound. The two voices come together very well, attesting to the main chorus of the song “Come meet me in the middle.” The two rappers seem to do a great job of this, with Bonnet’s backings sewing their two verses together invisibly, something you don’t hear until you do.The lyrics of the song, singing about relationships, compromises and making shit work, exactly like their voices do. Then the song ends and she sings us out, taking the last minute of the song as a tribute to her beautiful voice.
A funky guitar riff introduces the song, followed by a faint siren in the background. Andy goes back to rapping, the guitar and drums move together, and a brief trumpet riff sets the whole track into motion. Andy takes a bar to acknowledge his life moving too fast, wanting to slow it down and missing Mac Miller. He questions if this life is the life he actually wants. The song flourishes under him. The roots of the guitar chords expand until they are taken over by a keys and a trumpet getting louder with the beat. Andy’s lyrics come in harder and louder. The song bridge explodes with his singing, as the synths gain some momentum and compete for the spotlight.
Q-Tip comes in with a much-appreciated verse. His bars are solid, somehow slowing the song down even more. He calls out the violence in the world, as well as nostalgically reflecting on his own rap career. He simultaneously comments on the movement of rap music culture during his time as an artist. He finishes by throwing it back out to Andy at the end of his verse, as if to say “this your job now.” Andy takes it back with his singing/rapping chorus/bars mix and locking the sound down as it winds to an end.
This song has a solid chorus backing it up. This song’s about girls, a comfortable subject matter for Andy. It’s all about his girl, paying tribute to her, painting her out to be the best girl that he could possibly have, and highlighting all the sides and dimensions she possesses. He devotes a verse to nerdy girls, sweet girls, cougars, and fit girls. At one point, there is an odd call out to “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye, the song that haunts my 6th grade dances. Sweet Chick is a hell of a song. The keys background chorus lyrics give it the sound of a much lighter church-influenced track. BJ the Chicago Kid comes in with some dope R&B sounding verses, owning the higher range of the lyrics with a male voice to contrast Norelle and Bonnet. Kid gives a flourish to the end of his notes like nobody's business; it’s a hell of a job from this guy. His feature matches the gospel sound of the song. Another new direction, similar to Saviors rode, but going further into sound, BJ the Chicago Kid helping him clear the remaining distance. The song ends with an odd spoken outro, the aforementioned girl going off on Andy, almost threatening to kill him.
“Left to Right”
Kelsey Gonzalez, the bassist from the Free Nationals, is the on guitar for this one, but you hardly notice the guitar chords. The song is much more percussive, lots of clapping and beats over instruments which hide in the background until halfway through the song. Andy starts singing, dropping the strange dialect he was talking in, something Jamaican sounding. The chorus keeps repeating “Left to Right, Left left to right” like an instruction for some dance, trying to transfer the vibe of the album onto the listeners. The chorus is repetitive, some good background vocals bringing the track back to the sound of the previous four songs. Then, as the lyrics fade out, the beat descends and Andy stops talking, his last words “Still a Miracle” ringing in the listener’s ears. It’s an uncomfortable end to the record. Again, it’s a horribly jarring shift in sound directly before the record comes to a close. It seems to conclude his overall attempt at this new more percusional based sound. I don’t know why all of these percussion tracks feature someone else on the drums, given that he is a drummer. This probably accounts for the discomfort I can hear.
As made evident thus far, I don’t like all the new shifts in sound. Andy feels uncomfortable on these songs, and each one seems to stick out, not picking up where the left one left off and adding to the arch of the album. “Who R U?”, “6 Summers” and “Brother’s Keeper” all sound too mainstream, perhaps a result of too much production on the end of Dre. “Mansa Musa” and “Left to Right” are far to percussive. The mainstream and percussive directions of his sound are not something I feel Andy is entirely comfortable with, and that’s why they stick out and sound whack to me. That being said, “Anywhere” “Sweet Chick” and “Saviors Road” take him in new directions, G-Funk and Gospel respectively, and I think those work. Perhaps as a result of early on musical influence, or more comfort or appreciation for those genres, the comfort is back on those tracks and they sound amazing. “Cheers” and “Tints” are repetitions of a sound I recognize and I love, giving him the chance to take his bread and butter sound further than he did with Malibu, which is an amazing thing to experience.
But as a project, I still wanted more. It competes with Venice(2014), but I am disappointed that four of the songs weren’t good and the filler middle ones were just average. I hope that whatever he comes out with next, hopefully something with Knxwledge, will help him isolate his sound. I look forward to more mastering of the funk/jazz sound he’s got, hopefully with the addition of more G-Funk and Gospel themes he can really revolutionize music where it is, but in order to do that he needs to give up appealing to the more mainstream audience.