Anderson .Paak is earnest. That’s not a bad or damning trait — in fact, it’s responsible for much of his success — but at times it can be a grating one. On his latest, “King James,” .Paak crafts his take on the protest song, but its terminally laid back delivery threatens to leech it of meaning. “King James” touches upon the border crisis, police murdering African-Americans and, at one point, finds .Paak singing from the perspective of Colin Kaepernick, detailing the athlete-activist’s forced exit from the NFL for taking a knee in protest to law enforcement’s pattern of racially fueled killings.
The three-minute song never manages to do much besides point at misfortune and sing platitudes in response. It’s unfair to expect any musician to fully grapple with the weight of oppression currently endured by people of color in the Trump era, but it’s also not too much to ask for something that digs a little deeper than this. Phrases like “They can’t gentrify the heart of kings” and “We salute King James for using his chains to create some equal opportunities” are great Instagram captions, but so-so lyrics.
Witnessing innocent blacks getting executed in the streets or families ripped away from each other are traumatic experiences, but nowhere on “King James” do I leave with an understanding of how these experiences make .Paak feel, except vaguely hopeful for the future. The horns are triumphant, the drumming is energetic and the backing vocals pristine, but those elements mask Anderson’s lyrical handicaps in a sheen of nostalgia for black music of yore. If you don’t listen too closely, the bassline could distract you from the fact that the lyrical content is a departure for the typically sunny rapper.
Maybe “King James” is what some people need, and .Paak clearly cares about what he’s rapping about — but his method of communication lacks urgency and stakes, and ultimately leaves him in a lurch.
Anderson .Paak will release his latest album, Ventura, on April 12th.