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We need to talk about your friend—you know the one, right? The one who’s got that new “significant other.” Except you don’t really like this new one. You don’t see your friend as much as you used to, they barely text you and you think you’re drifting apart until one day the doorbell rings and they are there, alone. Smiles, hugs and laughter abound. The good old days are back. You even nearly forgot how good they were, those halcyon days.
For “that friend” though, read Anderson .Paak. Make no mistake, after a disappointing sojourn into a more hip-hop oriented realm with last year’s Oxnard, Paak is back and firing on all soulful cylinders. Far be it for me to want to pigeonhole an artist, but he floats effortlessly across the eleven songs here in ways he never did on Oxnard. There’s always room for development and venturing to new places, but the misogynistic flavor of hip-hop seemed ill-suited to a man of Paak’s electric charisma.
The guest list on Ventura also indicates that things have reverted more to type. Gone are the “hard as nails” rappers like Pusha T and instead comes a list of singers—some proper serious singers! There’s Lalah Hathaway’s extraordinary sonorous pipes, the gritted soul of Jazmine Sullivan, and the mellifluous tones of Brandy. Top of the pile though (despite his relatively brief appearance) is the living legend that is Smokey Robinson.
With such quality of vocalists, the material has to stand up to scrutiny and it stands proud and undefeated like a prize fighter. The currency of this album is an abiding need for a groove and the eleven tracks here are all variations upon that theme. Those variations ensure that songs don’t slip into one another and they retain their individual characters by dint of Paak’s ability to compose grooves that feel both zephyr light and lead weight heavy at the same time.
At the risk of being overly hyperbolic, there is something of the great Muhammed Ali about Paak’s music here. He floats like a butterfly over the rolling grooves but stings like a bee when the opportunity presents itself, such as on “King James”: “We couldn’t stand to see our children shot dead in the streets / But when I finally took a knee / Them crackers took me out the league / Now I’m not much for games.”
Having had misgivings about its predecessor, the opening track “Come Home” dispelled any residual negativity within about four seconds of playing. Delicate piano lines and muted stabs of horns combine with reverberating background vocals to create a lush, blissful groove that has more quality than 85% of Oxnard. And that is before we mention the presence of another guest verse from André 3000, whose jerky, syncopated flow is as stellar as ever.
Smokey Robinson’s vocals add his ineffable quality to what is already a delightful piece on “Make It Better.” One of the key ingredients here are the swooning strings and, indeed, they remain a constant factor throughout the album, even though they may be buried deep in the mix, only to see light at crucial points. “Reachin’ 2 Much” begins with bubbling bass and dramatic percussion, before changing character half way through to give a chilled groove for Hathaway to add her trademark vocal stylings to.
And so it goes. “Winners Circle” shimmers. “Good Heels” is a delicious snippet of a chilled out, lazy beat. “Yada Yada” is blissed out beyond measure. The brevity of the 11-track album lends more weight to the arrangements. Nothing overstays its welcome and it feels tautly focused on delivering memorable journeys driven by golden soundscapes.
Towards the end of the album come two tunes of slightly different character. Firstly, there is the sleek, more uptempo “Jet Black” featuring Brandy and then the Pharrell Williams produced “Twilight.” Williams brings his A-game to proceedings here with a throbbing, pounding beat, trumpet and flourishes of intricate percussive delight.
Joy and happiness permeate throughout the album, even when addressing things that are less than joyful and that is due to the fact that Paak is back on solid soul ground. His truth shines through the prism of his true musical self-expression, creating something that sounds more natural. No longer stifled, his charisma is there for all to see and hear – please no more hiding lights under bushels, Mr. Paak.
Notable Tracks: "Come Home" | “King James” | "Twilight"