Oxnard (released November 16, 2018)
Much like a West Coast giant years ago, all eyez are on Paak right now.
And trust, he knows it.
Anderson Paak struck gold with 2016’s Malibu, but don’t label him an overnight success. That triumph was the result of nearly of a decade of grinding, eventually leading him to the hands of hitmaker Dr. Dre. With a few high-profile features and the success of Malibu leading the charge, it wasn’t too long before the eclectic Paak – whose music mutates between R&B, hip-hip and funk before your eyes – was tapped as a future megastar.
And with the infectious “Bubblin'” burning up speakers throughout the summer, success seems like a sure bet.
Bafflingly, “Bubblin'” is nowhere to be found on Oxnard, Paak’s third LP. I’m not sure why you’d remove the summer’s best track from one of the year’s most anticipated releases, but here we are. Maybe because it’s clear that Paak sees Oxnard as his magnum opus, an extremely ambitious project vying for that coveted “hip-hop classic” label by marrying satire with biting social commentary over an array of lush production.
Sometimes it’s a little TOO ambitious, but more on that later.
The funky intro “The Chase” gets things started with an almost cinematic blaxploitation feel. It’s clear that this album is meant to be more than just a collection of songs, but a well-told story. That leads right into “Headlow,” with instrumentation so warm and inviting you’ll almost miss the goofy raunchiness of Paak nearly dying in a car accident while fooling around with his girl.
Paak loves using levity to soften the blow of his messages. On “6 Summers,” he mocks Donald Trump’s imaginary (?) love child and pushes for gun reform while proclaiming “This s*** gon’ bang for at least six summers/But ain’t s*** gon’ change for at least three summers,” bluntly reminding us that it’s business as usual in the White House till 2021 at the earliest.
Paak certainly isn’t a top-tier vocalist nor a lyrical powerhouse, though he does shine on “Saviers Road” (“Probably coulda been a doctor, I’m fond of optometry/Vision was like Martin Luther on the mountain peak”) but it’s his overwhelming confidence and ear for production that makes his music so fun. “Tints” feels like a summer breeze while “Who R U” is loaded with a heaping helping of heavy handclaps. The transitions on “Smile/Petty” work very well, moving from an addictive R&B-fueled bassline to straight-up Parliament funk to conclude the song.
Like the big-budget film Oxnard strives to be, it’s loaded down with A-listers, and the results are mixed. “Mansa Musa” bursts with braggadocio – it’s one of the best tracks on the album – but Dr. Dre bullies the beat so aggressively on his guest verse that he completely hijacks the track from Paak. Then Pusha T turned around and does the exact same thing on the next track, “Brother’s Keeper.” Paak feels like a guest vocalist on this own album.
“Cheers” feels much more like a joint effort, with Paak and Q-Tip weighing the ups and downs of life in the fast lane. And BJ the Chicago Kid brings stellar soulfulness to “Sweet Chick,” where Paak reads a laundry list of his conquests like Jay Z on “Girls, Girls, Girls.” The twist ending is pretty fun too.
It’s too bad Paak overextends his reach sometimes, needlessly mumbling through a Ja-fake-can accent on “Left to Right.” It’s bad enough when Drake cosplays as Beenie Man, it’s certainly not needed here. And “Trippy,” a J. Cole collaboration I was looking forward to, just kinda gets lost in the shuffle.
It’s clear Oxnard was supposed to take the strengths of Malibu to the next level. And without question, this record does many things very well. But because it tries so hard to tell so many stories (from political banter to relationships to the price of fame, to West Coast life, etc., etc., etc.) and gets too broad in the scope of its production (like the weird Jamaican thing) it loses the cohesion that made Malibu such a complete listen.
Oxnard is a fun return to form for Paak but falls just short of reaching the upper echelon of greatness.
Best tracks: “Cheers,” “Mansa Musa,” “Headlow”
4 stars out of 5