Anderson .Paak’s third LP Oxnard is his first release on Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, and for longtime fans It’s been interesting (and maybe a bit worrying) to watch him scale up his career goals to meet the ambitions of his new corporate benefactors. There have been subtle placements of his music in NBA broadcasts, less-subtle and omnipresent placements on Dr. Dre’s Beats 1 streaming service, even a free promotional carnival in .Paak’s hometown of Oxnard, California to celebrate his new LP.
But his supporters shouldn’t worry. While Oxnard can’t compare to .Paak’s celebrated 2016 breakthrough Malibu, there’s plenty of evidence to confirm that he remains an energetic and vivacious artist, full of good humor. Remarkably, Paak remains an anomaly: No one else is as dedicated to upbeat and funky hip-hop soul as the 32-year-old singer, rapper and drummer. Even when his open-ended vamps with backing band The Free Nationals meander a bit too long, and he struggles to conjure choruses as memorable as his kinetic performances, his songs dazzle simply because of his magnetic, cheerful presence.
Oxnard begins with “The Chase,” and a too-brief vocal interlude from Kadhja Bonet, a too-little-known L.A. singer known for her revival of psychedelic sunshine soul. Her dreamy invitation that “I need you more than you could know” is hardly indicative of the bubbly grooves to come. (However, its mood is later replicated by the haunted love streams of “Trippy.”) The next track, “Headlow,” kicks in with a salacious churn and ends with the sound of a blowjob thwarted by a car crash. It’s all a segue to “Tints,” a meditation on fame and desire for tinted windows that’s full of post-disco bounce. Some reviewers complained that the Kendrick Lamar-assisted jam was too slick and hollow when it dropped as a preview single last month, but its Shalamar-like pop melody sounds just fine here.
There are plenty of moments where Oxnard clicks, like the chugging, bum-rush rhythm “Who R U?” It may be the closest .Paak gets here to pure street funk bliss. Then there’s “Cheers,” where Paak pays tribute to Mac Miller—the two collaborated on what was arguably the late rapper’s best single, 2016’s “Dang!” “How do you tell a nigga ‘slow it down’/When you’re living just as fast as him?” he asks. As the bulbous, bass-driven beat slows to a haunting, piano-inflected crawl, he sings, “I should be with you/Damn it, I miss you.” Then Q-Tip (who co-produced the track) appears to reflect on Phife Dawg’s passing. It makes for a poignant, cathartic five minutes.
Still, there are missed opportunities. Some of the album’s best tracks like “6 Summers” – where Paak cheekily turns a bizarre fantasy about a supposed Trump love child into a party chant – sway and churn with no clear direction. Meanwhile, Dre’s engineering role proves a mixed blessing. While the good doctor applies his mixing skills with the loving touch of a man polishing a Chevy Chevelle, resulting in the aural equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster lathered in Dolby-quality boom, much of what made Paak’s early work so fantastic is forgotten. There’s none of the grungy Blaxploitation soul that fueled Yes Lawd!, his 2016 NxWorries project with L.A. beat loop expert Knxwledge, even though it was that group’s 2015 “Suede” single that reportedly inspired Dre to sign Paak in the first place. Enigmatic crate-digging genius and fellow Oxnard native Madlib isn’t here either, despite early reports that suggested otherwise. However, 9th Wonder orchestrates a spooky organ loop for “Saviers Road.”
Meanwhile, Paak soldiers on. Whether pimping too hard on the undercooked bonus track “Sweet Chick,” or holding his own with Pusha T over the scratchy funk-rock of “Brother’s Keeper,” he remains fully engaged. Oxnard doesn’t fulfill his dreams for creating a West Coast hip-hop soul epic for the age, but it’s not for lack of trying.