One of the main names on hip-hop heads’ lips this week — putting aside Puffy — was Anderson .Paak’s. Once known as Breezy Lovejoy, the Los Angeles up-and-comer released two acclaimed leaks towards his next project this week.
To fans of Dr. Dre’s big Apple comeback epic Compton, .Paak’s next move became a source of much speculation. Along with relatively unknown Charleston rapper King Mez, .Paak contributed to some of the album’s strongest, more emotionally effusive moments — among other things, trading quips with Dre “Guilty Conscience”-style on “All in a Day’s Work” and breaking up the abrasive, Eminem-dominated cut “Medicine Man” with his mournful speaksong.
It was the asymmetrical, soul-tinged cut “Suede” — one of the highlighted tracks from Nxworries’ project, .Paak’s collaborative endeavor with producer Knxwledge — that got the rapper in the studio with Dre. But that body of work — issued on Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw label — is a small portion of .Paak’s diverse and prolific catalogue. Over multiple EPs and standout features, he has developed the more elaborate, ambitious tendencies that he brings to bear on Compton. Loose videos — like one for the brittle, late-night disco track “Luh You” — emerged to moderate acclaim earlier this year, and a collaborative project with production team Blended Babies.
Along with the beats — thickets of bumper-car drum machines and orchestral gravitas, feeling structured along the lines of prog-rock as much as classic “Dre Day” G-Funk — .Paak’s youthful, unkempt rhymes helped give the Compton album its precocious, “New West Coast”-like sound. That rough designation, implying a fresh rise to prominence for West Coast gangsta rap in recent years, would mean little today without the rise of Top Dawg Entertainment. Specifically, Kendrick Lamar’s expansive style seems to define the term — it’s shorthand now for any new, malleable, structurally adventurous, and “lyrical” gangsta rap that crops up in California.
There’s no question that .Paak sounds a lot like Kendrick. His muted, breathy, and lightly intoned delivery immediately conjures the likeness — even his style of precise enunciation. When .Paak enters on Compton, it’s easy to mistake his identity. The young rapper’s genre-bending new tracks recall Lamar’s stylistic bromides on his March album To Pimp a Butterfly.
It stands to reason, perhaps.: Lamar’s influence tends to rub off on the rest of TDE’s roster, and .Paak might as well be an honorary TDE/Black Hippy member these days. He’s in cahoots with Aftermath, and told L.A. Weekly last month that though he has yet to be signed, he’s not looking elsewhere until Dre passes judgment. Also, Paak’s music maintains the same precarious blend of neo-soul, alt-rap, and traditional West Coast influences and contemporary street rap and R&B styles that characterize the sound of the label.
.Paak’s new drop “The Season/Carry Me” is instantly appealing — a relaxed listen. It highlights his rare gift for catchy, conversational, and stylish psuedo-melodic phrasing, and features some velveteen, sample-driven production from traditionalist and Little Brother member 9th Wonder. However, the bifurcated track hardly seems to build on itself, ultimately adding up to less than the strength of its individual ideas. The two halves of the song blend together, with the “Carry Me” section losing a lot of steam. Here, hypnotic becomes soporific, and .Paak’s individual, wispy phrases don’t work together create a memorable trajectory — either musically or narratively.
The other leak — the Schoolboy Q-featuring “Am I Wrong” — is a piece of spotless, boogie-styled club music. It showcases the resonances Paak’s phrasing and delivery has with James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, and comes off as an apt companion piece to Lamar’s “If These Walls.” from TPAB. Ultimately the real hero becomes the demented Chic/DāM-FunK-ish production, with its final synth horn conflagration stealing the show. By the end, .Paak just plays control variable.
The recent, buzzworthy .Paak material is all enjoyable, but not incredibly distinctive. It’s mainly notable for highlighting the fact that the young rapper is perhaps the most patent post-Kendrick stylist in hip-hop. Three years past his worldwide emergence, MCs in Lamar’s distinct lane stylistically are cropping up slowly but surely.
Though he’s built his own empire and sonic template since his 2013 breakthrough with the Acid Rap mixtape, Chance the Rapper might be regarded as the first major artist to fall into this general category. Though his style was mostly derived from his background at Chicago open mics and intercut with more self-effacing, lilting inflections, Chance is stoking the same fire as Lamar in terms of manic, genre-bending style, as well as crossover appeal. But no up-and-comers have channeled Kendrick’s influence as clearly as .Paak.
Last week, Justin Charity at Complex wrote an astute and incendiary piece which bemoaned the amount of consensus surrounding To Pimp a Butterfly, little of which — he argues — got at what was most interesting about the record, or dared to take issue with it. In his post-mortem critique of Kendrick’s album, he noted that the album is, at turns, “frustrating, painful, chaotic, and wildly derivative of so many black musical influences that Kendrick Lamar barely elevates.”
It remains difficult to judge what is really good and important about the ambitious music on TPAB — or Compton or Tyler the Creator’s Cherry Bomb for that matter — let alone fully digest the album’s complex, thematically fraught libretto. Are these albums just impressively dense collages of gestures from soul, funk, jazz and ‘90s hip-hop? What, ultimately, do we take away from these knotty edifices? How do they — built from bulletpoints from oh-so-many styles, and some outright homages — relate to the more drastic stylistic innovations going on elsewhere in the genre? It would be hard to argue that Lamar is anywhere near as great an influence on young rappers than now-commercial juggernaut Future. Given the amount of weighty and ambitious albums we’ve been gifted with this year, it’s been hard to have time to figure this out.
With Kendrick’s album, there are many layers to peel off before the essence of the music clarifies itself — before a valiant listener can determine whether its central thrust attracts, repels, or just bores them. People are just starting to truly come to terms with it in precise and meaningful ways. With psuedo-Kendrickian music like .Paak’s, though, it seems like the meat has already been slow-cooked: The layers fall off with minimal prodding — that is, on the second or first listen — exposing a lack of a clear central impetus. There’s the James Brown-like explosive phrasing, and the Raphael Saadiq-y sense of how to cultivate a kind of “smooth” that distinguishes ‘70s and ‘80s cratedigger-classic singles. There are Dilla-esque loping loops and dusty sonic detritus that rub up against a sense of careful rhythmic and micro-melodic organization derived from disco and house. Artistic identity is an elusive thing, but it’s hard to talk about .Paak’s without reverting to talking about everything that comes to bear on it.
And this would be a valid criticism of some of the retromaniacal stylistic blends on TPAB. Lamar’s multivalent, politically and sociologically charged arguments come through razor-sharp and to-the-point, but does the music possess the same clear and individualistic vision?
.Paak’s upcoming project Malibu — due before the end of this month — will be instructive in terms of determining if he can be a major, boundary-pushing voice, and by proxy, the transformative possibilities of Kendrick’s increasingly sprawling vision for hip-hop for the next generation.