Anderson .Paak's Ventura is a Necessary Development from Oxnard
by Noah Adaikkalam
Ventura is Anderson .Paak’s fourth and (potentially) final album. That's a hard sentence for me to write, given how much his musical career has meant to me. That being said I really liked what he did with Ventura. That might come as a surprise if you read my review of his album Oxnard which dropped last November, but I think Ventura is a great development and possible conclusion to his sound.
My main gripe with Oxnard was that I felt he was unsure of the sound that he was going for and in an attempt to create something new he ended up creating tracks that felt unsure of the direction they were going. That isn’t a problem this time around.
The first thing about this album that I love are the features. He has half as many on Ventura, and in the same way that Malibu (2016) did, these features only heighten his sound.
The first example of this is “Make it Better,” the second track off the record that features Smokey Robinson. It’s a relaxed song, presented with a lo-fi sound, where Andy sings through the complications of his long term relationship. He’s singing his own backgrounds, and Smokey Robinson only comes in to give his singing the slight push it needs. It’s a great resurgence of the stripped back sound that he thrived in on his first two projects.
The 11 tracks in Ventura clock in at 39 minutes, most songs stopping around the three and a half mark, allowing the entire project to flow better. Rather than combining two ideas into a single elongated track, as he did with “6 Summers” or “Brother’s Keeper” off of Oxnard, he chose to separate, letting them to stand on their own. The only exception to this is “Reachin 2 Much,” which continues the sound in the way the second movement of a song should by building off the musical themes the track started with and pushing one to its full potential.
I am not as big a fan of “Chosen One.” It feels overproduced, still showing signs of a slight disconnect between Andy and Dre. The lyrics and music seem to be at odds with each other, as Andy’s vocals call for a slower R&B-esque ballad, while Dre’s beat demands a club setting. However, by the second half, you can hear him sporting his signature smile as he shouts out MF Doom. The mesh of electronic noises cuts out, and Andy leads the vocals before passing them to SiR and Coco Sarai. This provides the listener with yet another track that illustrates Andy’s process of figuring out his new sound.
The transitions on the project are also much stronger. There is a general lack of the percussive sounds that dominated Oxnard, and as a result, it sounds like Andy is more able to move with his music rather than against it. The transition from “Chosen One” into “Jet Black” is a moment that I find indicative of his growth. It is a natural lead-in that omits the flash and bling of the previous track. It de-escalates the rhythm down to where he wants it before he comes on singing the way for Brandy to take over “Jet Black.”
I find it hard to believe that Andy will ever create something able to de-throne Malibu’s grit and authenticity. The ‘jazz .Paak’ is probably always going to be my favorite variation, as well as the best-received version, of his music. “King James” gives us a revival of that sound for a brief moment.
“King James” is fun song that touches on the social justice movements of our time, encouraging the audience to fight against it with lines like: “Everything they tried to hide / We're taking back for yours and mine”, “If they build a wall, let's jump the fence”, “And we salute King James for using his chains / To create some equal opportunities.” The social justice angle is something that emerged on Oxnard and this extension of it is amazing. Especially with LeBron’s move to LA, this track goes right in with his murals and gives Andy his own piece in the LABron aesthetic.
This album took a harder turn towards R&B than he ever has. Coincidentally I’ve been listening to Debarge’s All That Love (1982) and .Paak seems to carry a similar lyricism of the mid 80’s R&B/funk movement. Where the default sound on Malibu was bluesy and jazzy guitar riffs and minor chords on the piano, the default sound on this album is a simple synth beat with an electronic keys riff. He’s emulating the classic 80’s R&B sound that makes you nostalgic for the images conjured in the song, whether you’ve lived through that era or not. In my Oxnard review, I said I looked forward “to more mastering of the funk/jazz sound he’s got.” He seems to have dropped the jazz sound in exchange for the funk he’s found on this project.
The production quality has also vastly increased. Andy himself produced six of the eleven tracks, rather than four of the fourteen he did on Oxnard and that definitely comes across. Additionally, the other producers were a bit higher octane this time around. Pomo, a Canadian producer who worked closely with Mac Miller, had done a few tracks between Oxnard and Malibu and returned to play a larger role in the album’s production. Similarly, Fredwreck, a Palestinian-American producer from Detroit who worked with Andy minimally on his last project, produced four tracks this time around.
Just as importantly, Dre sat back and only produced 2 tracks in total. In an interview with Esquire, he said “[Dr. Dre] let me have a lot of leeway on Ventura. He was like, ‘it seems like you got it.’” I think it was exactly this leeway that made Ventura so good. Andy was having more fun, creating his way while utilizing the endless resources of Dre. I think that is the best way for these two artists to work together.
The ending is also much better. The final song, “What Can We Do?” is a great natural end to the album. The whole energy begins winding down two tracks before with “Jet Black” so by the time we get to “What Can We Do?” it feels natural and almost conversational. Andy and the late Nate Dogg sing the refrain back and forth as the beat fades into the background. The recording of Nate Dogg finishes the track off with a somber vocal run as Andy cheers him on.
Overall, I liked this album much more than its predecessor. In my eyes, it would be pretty hard for any new projects to hit as hard as Malibu. Ventura is a realistic follow-up to Oxnard. He personalizes and refines the sound he was experimenting with and it’s hard not to like it. Still, the old jazz roots occasionally bubble up in the sea of his new R&B and Funk sound. While some part of me will always want him to return to Malibu, it’s nice to see him find his footing in the next arc of his music. I think it’s on me to accept where he is now.