Anderson Paak offers a mission statement early on his Malibu album, which hit shelves last Friday: "I bring you greetings from the first church of boom bap-tists." Boom bap, a head-nodding subgenre of hip-hop popular in the Nineties, earned its onomatopoeic name from the raw crunch of prominent drums. "This production, there's kind of a void for it right now," the singer/rapper/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist tells Rolling Stone. "There's no singers killing that."
But while boom bap tends to worship a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach, Paak's church is more open-minded: He takes the sound as a starting point and then incorporates gospel, neo-soul and disco. And despite the fact that boom bap is frequently associated with New York, where it flourished with help from producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock, Malibu is a distinctly West Coast album, from the title to the amusing recordings of surfers that help stitch together the tracks.
Speaking on the phone from Paris — Paak celebrated his album release with a Boiler Room event in London — he laughs about the boom bap pun. "I was on the road with [the producer] Knxwledge," he remembers. "We're both church kids — I listened to a lot of gospel with him. You get on the road and you start driving; you get a lot of time to think of clever shit."
Most listeners initially encountered Paak's "clever shit" last year on Compton, the first collection of new Dr. Dre songs in 16 years. Though the record bristled with features, Paak's contributions stand out: He can be found on six tracks, deftly threading hooks around Dre's solid raps. One of those tunes, "Animals," was originally Paak's song with boom bap veteran DJ Premier before Dre heard it.
Though he only recently entered the larger popular consciousness, Paak is not exactly a fresh-faced kid — he turns 30 in February. He learned music largely by playing in church, and he bounced around the L.A. music scene for years, meeting other musicians through beat cyphers and then through a gig at what used to be the Temple Bar, where he played in what he refers to as "sort of a house band."
He fell in with Shafiq Husayn, one half of Sa-Ra Creative Partners, whose meld of hip-hop and R&B is a clear influence on Paak's sound. "I ended up being in charge of putting together a band for Sa-Ra," Paak explains. "I was rocking with Shafiq for a while and ended up living with him. I was his chauffeur, his cook, his weed roller, his videographer, everything."
But eventually, Paak decided he had to change his approach. "I was doing all these different things for all these different people," he says. "But at the end of the day, my career wasn't getting anywhere and nothing was really sticking." With funding from a mentor, he did nothing but work on his own music for eight months. He emerged from this period with tunes that would make up Venice, out in 2014, and much of Malibu as well.
To mark a new phase, he left behind his previous moniker and rearranged his name, Brandon Paak Anderson, to arrive at his current title. The period in his moniker — he officially styles it "Anderson .Paak" — served as a reminder to always "pay attention to detail," and this has paid off. Producer 9th Wonder, one of boom bap's modern torch bearers — his rich discography includes Jay Z's "Threat," Erykah Badu's "Honey," and now two beats on Malibu — was struck by Paak's focus in the studio. "You have these conversations with artists that turn into debates," 9th says. "'Stay true to yourself. Don't compromise with anybody. It has to be great records.' I didn't have to have that conversation with him."
Listen to Venice, released 15 months ago, and you hear that Paak's uncompromising vision is already in place: The album is full of live funk, the textures of Nineties hip-hop and snippets of dialogue that reference surfing. "Some songs I held off putting out on Venice," Paak notes. "I had a core of songs I was holding on to, and I later built Malibu around those. I see [Malibu] as a progression. People were telling me I have to stick in a lane. I want to be known as a person who can fit into any room and wear any hat."
Between the release of Venice and Malibu, Compton arrived, and Paak acknowledges the importance of this with an appropriate surfing metaphor: "I caught a wave." He credits Dre with honing his vocal delivery, which is raspy and excitable. "I had a better idea of what type of production I sounded really good on," Paak continues, "and what was kind of missing in the game. After [Compton] came out, I was like, 'Where did [Dre] not take it that I could take it?'"
The answer was deeper into a stew of rap and second-wave neo-soul. The first half of Malibu is especially impressive, full of purposefully sloppy crunch — as DJ Premier once explained, "the drums have to smack" — and supple, trenchant bass playing, often courtesy of Kelsey Gonzáles, whom Paak met during his days at the Temple Bar. There's a fluid mix of rapping and singing, by Paak and others, throughout the record, and two choirs add a gospel element — one is made up of various band members, while the Timan Family Choir contains four of Paak's nieces.
There's more of an appetite for this mixture of sounds than there used to be. Last year saw the release of several acclaimed records that emphasized a funky ensemble approach, most prominently Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment's Surf. Before that, neo-soul progenitor D'Angelo reemerged, and several of his collaborators — bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Chris Dave and guitarist Isiah Sharkey — appear on Paak's "Water Fall (Interluuube)."
9th Wonder believes Paak is filling a void in the current musical landscape. One of the producer's contributions to Malibu is "The Season," which he describes as "a ride-down-the-street record." "That's missing in R&B," he adds. "Ride down the street, windows down, something we can bob our head to."
Paak hopes that his example will lead to more uncompromising music in the future — the church of surfing-inclined boom bap-tists is looking for converts. "There needs to be more textures out there, more options," he declares. "I just see myself as one of those surfers, riding that wave, carving out. And the ocean's big enough for everybody."