Farther Out: California Dreaming with Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak is Dr. Dre's newest protégé, looking to prove he's an auteur in his own right. With his new album 'Malibu,' he does exactly that.
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Anderson .Paak doesn't know how to surf.
That's why, a few days before Christmas, he's sitting on the sand on a stretch of Malibu shoreline instead of partaking in the waves with the crew of his manager's friends a few yards away. .Paak doesn't come out here often; the drive is a good hour, on a reasonable day, from the Koreatown apartment he shares with his wife and five-year-old son on the east side of LA. But his manager's brother-in-law and a music industry pal both live in the area, and they have agreed to shepherd .Paak and his manager around to the day's slate of photo shoots and interviews across the affluent LA beach city, which juts out 27 miles into the Pacific—and away from most everything else.
It's been a long day, and they jump at the chance to hit the waves as .Paak chats with me. The industry pal, Kevin, has jerry rigged an old boat motor on the shore into an auto-tow line that flings them across the waves, to varying levels of success. The sky is crisp and ablaze in the wake of an El Niño downpour, and we're transfixed watching them tackle the rising tide with Sisyphean gusto.
"Boogie boarding is the closest I ever got," says the California-born .Paak, looking out and laughing as he pulls from a Corona.
It's a little ironic, given that his forthcoming LP is called Malibu, and that it incorporates old surf film and radio show samples with his raw, Sam Cooke-kissed vocals and no-frills West Coast rhymes. But it also makes perfect sense, because, at its core, Malibu is about the same kind of freedom surfers relish: finding release in taking risks.
"People have said I couldn't do songs with all these different genres, with all these different artists. It made me wanna break the rules," .Paak says. "They were like, you can't have a trap song then a straight funk song then an R&B song—you should pick a lane. And I was like, that is my lane. I do different shit."
After years building hype on the sidelines as a singer, rapper, drummer, and producer in the LA scene and working with local underground luminaries like Nocando and Dumbfoundead, Malibu places .Paak at the heart of the buzz. He gained momentum in 2014 with his independently-released debut Venice, as well as with NxWorries, his project with Philly producer Knxwledge. The latter—single "Suede," in particular—caught the ears of Dr. Dre with its fresh, irreverent future-soul sound.
.Paak would go on to feature on six of the 16 songs on Compton, more than any other artist on the record, and the only one with a stand-alone track. He was tapped by The Game for two tracks on Documentary 2. He released a hit EP, Link Up & Suede, with NxWorries. He jammed in the studio and became friends with Kendrick Lamar.
"Compton had just come out and we talked about what a trip it was to work with Dre. I played him what I had so far of [Malibu], and I remember paying attention to every little facial expression," .Paak says. "He was vibin' to it. You can tell when music is really affecting people. He's super cool every time. We're always cracking jokes."
Malibu, which drops January 15 on OBE / Steel Wool / Art Club / EMPIRE, arrives as one of the most anticipated records of the new year. The 16-track album reads like a hip-hop Blue Book: The Game, Schoolboy Q, Talib Kweli, Rhapsody, BJ the Chicago Kid, and 9th Wonder all feature. In February, he'll hit the road with his band The Free Nationals for his first headlining European tour, and he'll play his first Coachella gigs in April. NxWorries, meanwhile, will drop its debut full-length on Stone's Throw later this year.
Not bad for a guy with no major label deal—at the time, anyway—and no radio hits. But if he's set to blow, .Paak faces the new challenge of moving beyond the label of "Dre's protégé" and establishing himself as an auteur in his own right. With its effortless vision of how to adapt hip-hop's traditional sounds and ideals for a contemporary audience, and the futurist ambition of its California dreamin' fantasia, Malibu could be the vessel for doing exactly that.
The crew runs out of sunlight and beer, but .Paak's day is far from over. I offer him a ride back to Koreatown, where he'll stop at his studio to run through a mix with his DJ for a New Year's Eve event before—at my insistence—grabbing a dinner of wings, fries, and IPAs at the gastropub downstairs, and then heading out again to meet up with Travis Barker, the latest artist to solicit a collaboration. They've never met; .Paak seems just as confused as the prospect sounds, but he's excited: Barker is no stranger to hip-hop, a power player who shifts seamlessly across the rap, pop, and rock worlds. .Paak wants them all.
More immediately, however, .Paak knows he's not in a position to say no to anyone.
"It's like, it just took me so long to get to this point. It's just now starting to pop," .Paak says, noting that he turns 30 next month. "I feel like I have all this making up to do for all the years that… nothing was sticking. Now it's like, this is all I want to do all the time. While I feel inspired, and while the demand is high. I wanna supply it with good music."
Save for his septum ring, the stylish accoutrements of the star mugging for cameras against the beachside glamour—a leather motorcycle jacket, custom gold chains, a pink sweatshirt— disappear into the plastic Marshall's bag he's become accustomed to toting around on nonstop days like this.
Reclining in the passenger seat in jeans, a knit shirt, and plastic-framed glasses, .Paak flips through half a dozen artists he's been into recently—Thundercat, Tame Impala, Kaytranda, The Dirty Projectors, Flying Lotus, The Game—before landing on Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a favorite from last year.
"Caaaan't keep checking my pho-o-o-ne," he half-sings, half-laughs, dancing a little in his seat.
It's a glimpse of the giddy, slightly nerdy 20-something born Brandon Paak Anderson, the funny, approachable guy who played drums in his church band as recently as last year, rather than the cultivated swagger of LA's hottest new artist, who courts interest from major labels and makes fans swoon with lyrics like "She said bend me over that sink / I said damn, your wish is my will."
.Paak may be cool, but he's also introspective enough to shift what's ostensibly his biggest star turn on Compton, "Animals," into a moment of both political protest and understated humanity, repeating "Got a son of my own / Look him right in his eyes / I ain't living in fear / But I'm holding him tight."
Pacific Coast Highway gives way to a slog of traffic on the 10 as downtown's skyline emerges. Even the surface streets seem to have paused, a warm, damp stillness as the city recalibrates from evening to night. The rhythmic stop-and-go sets the pace for a discussion that meanders from .Paak's Baptist upbringing ("I'm fortunate for that early hub and compass,") to his Hollywood cultural awakening and shift to spirituality ("It's important to be able to empathize. To believe in something, like there's something more to this shit,") to his distaste for karaoke ("That's for people who can't sing,"). He's an easy conversationalist who's gregarious but not annoying, softspoken with a candor that almost borders on naïveté. His speaking voice is higher than his rough-hewn croon would let on, and when he's excited, or emphatic—which is often—it rises quickly in both pitch and volume.
"My job was literally digging ditches at one point," he says. "So for this to be work? Yeah, I'll take it. Fuck yeah, I'll do another interview. I'll do it all."
Fifty miles north of the beach, past Malibu's tony cliffside estates, past Dr. Dre's sprawling mansion where .Paak has kicked it on more than one occasion, is Oxnard, the blue collar Ventura County hub of strawberries and rail yards where .Paak grew up.
The son of a half-Korean single mother produce supplier, and brother to three sisters, .Paak divided his time between Oxnard and neighboring Ventura, one of two black kids in his high school in an area whose sleepy farm town beauty is belied by gang activity spurred by boredom and big city spillover.
He received his first drum kit at age ten. Music has been the only constant in his life. His clearest memory of his Air Force vet-turned-mechanic father was as he was being taken away by police after nearly beating his mother to death; the next time .Paak saw him was in a casket, having succumbed to addiction after years in and out of the system.
It's a subject .Paak delves into with vulnerability—but never self-pity—on Malibu, and entirely new territory compared to the cheeky hedonism of Venice.
"Who cares, your daddy couldn't be here? / Mama always kept the cable on / I'm a product of the 'tube and the free lunch / Living room, watching old reruns," he sings on album closer "The Dreamer."
.Paak's mother eventually remarried, and he found an outlet making music with his congregation at Saint Paul Baptist Church, as well as on his computer in his bedroom. As a shy, chubby kid, drumming, singing, and rhyming offered him his first tastes of confidence, and a hint at something larger than what he knew. But his aspirations were put on hold when his mother and stepfather were sent to prison for securities fraud when he was 17.
"I just feel like they made an example of her. Because where we grew up in Ventura County, it's just a lot of rich, older white people," he says. His tone is measured, but the words come sharp and quickly: "I just felt like it was a super racist town. I don't know how you give someone 14 years, and make them serve seven and a half, [when] no one was hurt or killed. She had no record. She was just trying to make money for her kids."
.Paak spent the next year or so living off of the couches of family and friends, working as a home health care aid to help the family make ends meet. A shotgun marriage to his church sweetheart ended in annulment, and at 21 he packed up and moved to LA to bone up on his drumming at the for-profit Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
There he met, and later married, a vocal student from South Korea, with whom he had his son. Weekdays were spent practicing and rehearsing, studying jazz charts, learning covers, and performing under the moniker Breezy Lovejoy. Weekends were spent working on a pot farm in Santa Barbara, where he and his wife would handle football fields of the stuff. "I still have visions of that shit," he quips.
Music took a back seat while .Paak focused on steadying his family. After his son was born, he met local rapper Dumbfoundead and returned to getting his name out in LA's underground scene, building word-of-mouth buzz around his dynamic live sets.
But that came to a halt in 2011, when .Paak was let go from the farming job without warning, suddenly homeless with a new wife and infant son.
"It was a wrap. I spent all my money. I couldn't pay my sister rent, so she kicked me out," he says. "I had a whole family now, and I didn't have anywhere to stay. So I was like, fuck it. That was really difficult."
Singer-producer Shafiq Husayn, of LA future-soul dignitaries Sa-Ra Creative Partners, took them in while .Paak finished his debut as Breezy Lovejoy—O.B.E. Vol. 1, which stands for "Out of Body Experience"—out of Husayn's Eagle Rock home. Around the same time .Paak landed a gig drumming on tour for American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart. He was back on his feet, but nothing was sticking.
His mentor, former Dumbfoundead manager Brian Lee, gave .Paak the push he needed, offering to provide him with a dedicated studio space in his home where .Paak could work uninterrupted for six months straight.
"He was like, 'Right now you're doing all kinds of different shit. You're drumming, you're rapping, you're floating everywhere. Why don't you just focus and make a bunch of tunes and we'll see what happens after that?'"
What happened was the material that would go on to form his first .Paak project, Cover Art, his first LP, Venice, as well as early versions of Malibu tracks like "The Bird."
"That was the first time I really brainstormed, and developed a work ethic, and woke up early, and started writing music, and really got focused on like, 'Ok, this is what I want for myself. I'm sick of being broke. I wanna fucking do this shit.,'" he says. "That was it."
That's when the new name came into the picture.
"The main thing that I learned from all this was the attention to detail. Everything was going how it was going before because I felt like [it was] my lack of detail. I didn't really pay attention that much," he says. "And that's what I feel like the dot represents now. It's detail. Before, nobody gave a fuck. And now that some people do, now we're gonna have to put that dot every time."
Three years later, that attentiveness remains the thread among his varied and evolving projects. If Venice was imbued with the dynamic grit, sheen, and toughness of its namesake LA boulevard, Malibu, fittingly, gets further out: a rich, surreal melding of old school West Coast hip-hop, trap, 60s soul, psych, and the surreal, funky heart of LA's beat scene. It manages to feel both aspirational and like a victory lap, a view from the center of a Venn diagram of the dynamic West Coast music scene.
It's also more personal. While his older work centered on carnal party themes, ranging from seductive to self-destructive, Malibu focuses on the complex realities of his past, and the pleasure he takes in the present. It's a maturation, and in its stylistic diversity manages to be his most cohesive work yet.
"Venice is grittier. You might buy some drugs over there. Malibu you have to have your money right. It's a different vibe," .Paak explains. "I didn't know I was gonna be working with Dre and the musical elite, and I feel like it had something to do with that, too. It's about being larger than life. It's about, 'Wow we made it.' It's taking a journey from rags to riches, in a musical sense. I'm not interested in doing the same thing twice."
.Paak's appetite for experimentation led him to Knxwledge, whom he met over Twitter, and what got "Suede," alongside Venice-by-way-of-YouTube hit "Drugs," on heavy rotation with the team working on Compton last spring. .Paak says he'd come close to working with Dre several times before, all of which turned out to be empty promises; he'd never actually met the guy. So when he was summoned to work with DJ Dahi on some exploratory sessions for Compton, he didn't hold his breath. But when DJ Dahi calls you to the studio, you go, and it just so happens the first guys .Paak met there were Dre and the D.O.C.
"When I got to the studio to work on the song, [Dre] didn't even know who I was," he says. That didn't last long. Dre threw down a beat, and the gauntlet: "What you got?"
.Paak closed his eyes and started riffing. When he opened them, the team was floored, whooping with delight. The track would become, fittingly, "All in a Day's Work," and the rest is on the album.
"I remember Dre saying, 'You got that natural pain in your voice,'" he says. "That's when I thought, OK, I might be onto something.'"
Travis Barker's North Hollywood studio is as disorienting as the snaking, dimly-lit ride up the 101 to get there, a squat, unwelcoming structure whose ambiguous origins could equally point to a house or a bank.
Barker greets us, softspoken and exceptionally polite; in a beard and black down jacket, he's entirely unassuming, save for silver caps on his incisors. He leads us through a narrow hallway flanked by rooms packed with state-of-the-art drum equipment; .Paak pauses briefly to fawn over a daunting orange electronic kit.
"You play?" Barker asks.
"Yeah, a little," .Paak says, his smile belying the understatement.
The whole place smells like it's been doused with Axe Body Spray.
The main studio is spartan but accommodating, its decor limited to some leather couches and a honeycomb of security camera video feeds. A whiteboard mapping out the next album from the Transplants, Barker's supergroup with Tim Armstrong, rests atop a speaker. It's a place to put in work, and that's just what .Paak gets to doing.
Within ten minutes, he improvises the bones of a chorus for a Game track, refining words for emphasis, adding harmonies, then just as quickly directing the engineer to which bars he wants pared down. .Paak's voice, whether sung or spit, is scratchy and mercurial; in someone less practiced, it might sound comical or affected, but .Paak understands what he's wielding.
"He's like a cartoon character!" Barker exclaims as .Paak ad-libs grunts and exclamations. We laugh, but on the playback, the lyrics punch with new precision for it.
Barker stays hands off, observing .Paak work with an effortless kind of efficiency: He knows exactly what he wants to hear. In an hour's time, he's laid down full vocals and freestyles on tracks with Game and Lil Wayne, both holding his own and leaving them arguably the better for it. It's a glimpse of what Dre picked up on almost a year ago.
It's close to midnight; .Paak has to get going. The two agree they have plenty more work to do together.
"You work with Wayne?" Barker asks.
"Not yet," he says, with the wink of a zinger.
If .Paak feels unstoppable, hints of nervousness and wonder still crack through—those of someone forced to grow up quickly finally being able to breathe and enjoy his youth.
"Y'all drinking?" .Paak asks as he enters the booth, more of an imperative than a question. When Barker says, no, he has to drive, .Paak walks it back: "Oh yeah, me neither."
When .Paak's guard is down, he's soft spoken, laughs easily, and sharply self-aware. He's been texting jokes back and forth with Kendrick all night, but still asks to snap a photo with Barker before getting in our Uber and flashing a "Well, that just happened!" grin. Just as quickly, he's back to mulling over his performance and the details of their session. He reconsiders the crass rhymes he ad-libbed on one of the tracks, then reconsiders again—that was the vibe of the song, and he did what needed to make it work. Anyway, he points out, it wasn't too shabby for five minutes on the spot.
On the ride back to K-Town, he contemplates his future. He's done the grind. He's spent the last decade building a life in LA, which includes his family, a network of collaborators, and a growing fanbase. But now new opportunities feel tangible—his third solo album is already in the works, and he alludes to "cool things coming in the future and opportunities that I really want to smash...I always run with it until I find what I want to do."
"[LA] will probably be home," he says. "My family is here. But I really like Europe. Paris. Berlin. I love Copenhagen. There's still so much out there to see."
It calls to mind a line on Venice cut "The City": "Don't tell me where you're from / Tell me where you wanna get to." For .Paak, inspiration comes from what's just out of reach.
.Paak says he likes not knowing where exactly he'll end up. And between touring, collaboration, and his future in the industry, he's still got plenty to discover. Maybe, he says, he'll even learn how to surf.
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.