The Californian Glow of Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak is the sort of guy who could turn out his pockets and make half-decent music with whatever fell out. He was just seven years old when he wrote his first song – a naïve gangsta rap track called Trigger – and at 11 he joined the church band where he mastered the drums. It was his singing voice, though, that would one day catch the attention of childhood hero Dr. Dre.
“He told me when we first started writing, ‘you’ve got that natural pain in your voice,’” says .Paak, now 30 years old with a freshly inked record contract for Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment. It’s true, .Paak has lived through some tough experiences – from seeing both his parents get locked up, to enduring a period of homelessness – and you can hear it in his warm rasp that cracks and strains in all the right places. It’s a voice that sounds thoroughly lived in, like the well-thumbed copy of a favourite book.
The writing sessions he’s talking about were for Compton – Dre’s first album in 16 years – on which .Paak has six feature placements, more than any other artist. That’s a mighty leap of faith from the famously perfectionist producer, who’d never heard a note of .Paak’s music before he walked in the studio.
“A few days into working on Compton he told me he wanted to sign me,” the Californian singer-rapper tells me over the phone. “We were working late one night and I played him six or seven songs – he just told me to keep going. The same night he told my manager, ‘alright, we’re going to do this, tomorrow I’m going to have some paperwork for you’ – and that’s what happened.”
This kind of success was never guaranteed. Singing was really the last jigsaw piece for the multi-talented musician, who moved to LA from Oxnard in his early twenties to escape boredom and get around more diversity; .Paak was one of the only African American kids at his school in Ventura, California. When he finally got to LA, though, things very nearly fell apart. .Paak was left homeless after losing a farming job in 2011, before being taken in by Shafiq Husayn of the futurist hip-hop trio Sa-Ra. He spent the next few years hopping around the LA beat scene collaborating with anyone he could, while at the same time honing his own songs. During this period he released two records under the name Breezy Lovejoy, and spent a stint as tour drummer for American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart.
Gradually, his own career in music began to take shape, and he grew more confident in his singing voice too. “When I came out to LA I still didn’t think was a very good singer,” admits .Paak. “There were some things that came quite quickly, like drumming and production, but singing was definitely something where I had to gain a lot of confidence and figure out what tone I wanted to do. It was always a work in progress right up until the Anderson .Paak stage.”
A week after our conversation, I attend .Paak’s sold out show at London’s XOYO – and any signs of his aforementioned self-doubt are untraceable. Opening with Compton highlight Animals, .Paak arrives on stage in a Culture Club T-shirt and a Bart Simpson baseball jacket, before inviting his band The Free Nationals on stage to perform songs from his recent solo album Malibu. .Paak is everywhere; one minute rapping centre stage, then running behind the drum kit to lead his band through extended jams. At another point he jumps down to get among the crowd, where he dances along to the horn-laden funk boogie Am I Wrong.
Funk is one of many sounds you’ll find on Malibu – the album really does resist easy categorisation, fluctuating freely between gospel, soul, hip-hop, Latin and synth-pop. Although the music often sounds as though it’s basking in the warmth of the Californian sunshine, lyrically Malibu doesn’t shy away from the dark narratives of .Paak’s life, such as the story of his mother being sentenced to 14 years in prison on fraud charges, and the addictions that claimed his father’s life. “Who cares your daddy couldn’t be here? Mama always kept the cable on,” he croons on The Dreamer, joined by a church choir that includes four of his nieces.
As well as being his most personal record yet, Malibu feels like a leap forward in terms of pure songwriting craft. Lead single The Season / Carry Me is particularly moving, a near-perfect two-parter that describes the power of a family’s love amidst the struggles of poverty. “Don’t forget that dot, nigga you paid for it,” he raps on the song’s first verse, referring to the period in his name. It stands for “detail”, serving as a reminder of all the time he feels he was slept on, or “living under my greatness,” as he puts it on the song.
“Things are getting onto a bigger scale for me. I'm learning how to embrace that”
Now signed to Aftermath, of course, the world will be watching his every move. There’s also NxWorries, his collaboration with LA beatmaker Knxwledge which has a full album on Stones Throw ready to go. “It’s my Ziggy Stardust, or my Gnarls Barkley,” he claims. “I can tap into a whole new character where I’m pulling on different things.”
It was the NxWorries single Suede that .Paak played in his first meeting with Dr. Dre, who then looped the song three times in a row. Ever the businessman, Dre later advised him not to do so many features. “That was interesting to me,” says .Paak, “because I spend a lot of time working with underground artists – kind of just venturing out and doing a lot of different things. I feel like things are getting onto a bigger scale, and I’m still kinda getting used to these things while he’s all about going big. I’m learning how to embrace that.”
For now, .Paak says that being on the road with the people he struggled with is all the success that he needs, besides which — fame killed all of his favourite entertainers. “I don’t want to see my dreams fall down the wayside because of that certain thing,” he concludes. “I always want to have that hunger like I did when I was seven years old wanting to make dope music.” Anderson .Paak has seen and done a lot since he wrote Trigger in his childhood bedroom, yet somehow this feels like the beginning.