Of the new crop of melancholic neo-soul vocalists invading the underground-to-mainstream airwaves, it may be Los Angeles’s Anderson .Paak who has raised the most intrigue of late. On his new collaborative The Anderson .Paak EP with Chicago production team Blended Babies, the promise seen on releases with the likes of everyone from Tokimonsta to Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre becomes more fully realized than ever before as his work shines here more than ever before.
In four tracks, Paak attempts to succeed in expanding himself past the work that he’s done both with and for the folks that defined his rise. However, there’s nothing on this EP that’s better than Tokimonsta-produced soul groove “Realla,” Dr. Dre’s “Animals,” or Kendrick Lamar’s “All In A Day’s Work.” There’s something in the sheen, in the tenor of his voice resonating against those productions that just doesn’t happen on this release. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a well-executed group of songs, but more so a veering left turn off the skyrocketing road to excellence that we’ve now come to expect of late from .Paak’s career.
The best of the quartet of singles is “Make It Work,” which is the EP’s lead track. Fellow Chicagoan and Chance the Rapper’s Social Experiment band member Donnie Trumpet is hauled into the production as is mainstream flash-turned-underground stalwart emcee Asher Roth, too. As a collaborative unit, the producers and vocalists all shine here. The track’s filtered Hammond organ and fat breaks hearken back to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Unbelievable,” and when placed against the heavy track, the deep lyrical content fits. Paak as a lover man working his way into his female listener’s hearts is where he’s best. “I wanna make it work, I wanna make it good if it kills me” is not only the EP’s strongest hook but also the best way to understand his career at present.
“Cheap Whiskey 70’s Reisling” and “Drifter II” are more of the character studies here, as we now get more into the humanity of just who Anderson .Paak is as a person, and not as a vocal superstar on the rise. Regarding this EP, .Paak was quoted as saying “The music speaks for itself. I was able to tap into some deep blues working with Blended Babies. They brought out some personal stories and also some shit to ride to.” The two aforementioned tracks are those productions in particular.
“Cheap Whiskey.70’s Reisling” is an homage to his apparently estranged father, as both the open drum pickup and lonely lead guitar chords speak to the notion of being fatherless and being haunted by that unknown man’s memory. “Cheap whiskey runs through me,” .Paak says, relating what may be his own alcohol-fueled adult experiences to those of what he knows about the life of his absentee father. Add in “Drifter II’s” stream of consciousness-style bars about his “daddy’s grave,” and the melancholy circle is complete. It’s a true departure from what we’ve known of .Paak to date, and maybe deserves its own album-as-dramatic-experience to be fleshed out in full. We get a taste here, and it’s pleasant, yet emotionally jarring in the best way.
Both King Chip and Anderson .Paak play “young niggas with old souls” on “So Slow,” which plays out as a fantastical tale of models taking “fun dip” and other thoroughly debased behavior. Chip does his best King Push as icy-veined-druglord raps here while .Paak feels like he’s comfortably settling into the role of “heartbroken daddy’s boy gone bad.” As compared to The Weekend who just feels content to walk around as the vice in human form, .Paak’s character stance feels similar, yet, thankfully, different. Is it a road for him to consider as an artist? Maybe. However, tales of cocaine-fueled debauchery are becoming commonplace in R&B these days, so maybe he should consider another path.
Anderson .Paak is a gifted singer-songwriter on the fast track to mainstream superstardom. Along the way to success, he’s stopped and delivered four tracks that if regarded as more than an exercise in character development could be getting it wrong. .Paak is certainly not worse than this EP, but he’s certainly better than it, too. Between working in EDM, rap and soul over the past year, .Paak’s likely spread his mind and creative wings farther than ever before. The mainstream is now discovering the man that has lived within this artist all along, and we are now getting to see the surface of his immense talent get scratched.