If last year’s Oxnard was Anderson .Paak’s version of Outkast’s Speakerboxxx – a shape-shifting hip-hop LP steeped in eccentric R&B — its sister LP, Ventura, is his The Love Below, an eccentric R&B record tilting towards hip-hop. Ventura even begins with an André 3000 cameo, a memorable one at that, the MC-emeritus navigating grown-ass relationship trials (aging, hair dye, relationship counseling) on verses that move from trot to canter to gallop to warp-speed: “Amazing how time can run/away from us/I’m no nun/you’re no priest/but I promise hon/You’re goin’ to see a phenomenon/Come with me like it’s Ramadan.” The benediction caps “Come Home,” a lavish slow jam that otherwise has .Paak pleading with his own beloved amidst angelic soul choirs. And it sets the tone for an LP that’s in large part about a rather un-pop concept: the sustained, sometimes unsexy effort necessary to create something lasting, whether it’s social change or a healthy relationship.
“Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson)” drives home the latter on a song that reasons “It’s easier to walk away/Than to look for what would make you stay.” Opting for the latter, the singer suggests he and his lover “make some new memories” the way a Cosmo article might: swapping the conjugal bed for a hotel room, to try “some new seduction … give each other new instructions.” On “Winners Circle,” Sonny from A Bronx Tale waxing philosophical about the “three great women in your life” who “come along every ten years,” as Paak scats against a harem of backing vocalists and savors the (intermittent) appeal of abstinence. “Jet Black,” however, abstains from nothing, Paak and eternal heartthrob Brandy canoodling over a G-funk bounce mixed by Dr. Dre. “Twilight,” with help from Pharrell, addresses relationship bumps with eyes on the long haul.
“King James,” meanwhile, is a sort of activist work song, invoking Colin Kaepernick and the Trump wall while paying tribute to the community-minded Lebron (“we salute King James for using his change/ To create some equal opportunities”). Released just two weeks before the murder of another community-minded LA hero, Nipsey Hussle — Paak’s friend and neighbor — the single’s chilled-out, midtempo vibe approaches protest music like Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield recordings have, more as nurturing groove than rallying cry.
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Overall, Ventura‘s grooves are scintillating, with percussive filigree sputtering like fireworks across the album’s mix, and at its best the LP conjures vintage soul with modern beat science underpinnings, an elegant mix of tough and plush. Paak’s skill set is substantial — drummer, writer, producer, rapper, singer — and it’s a sign of the 33-year-old’s standing that the likes of Dre, Pharrell, Brandy, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Snoop, Q-Tip, and J. Cole all made time for the Oxnard/Ventura sessions. Paak’s output is keeping pace with his ambition. But good as his records have been, this set included, you still get a sense that the best work still lay ahead.