The tame quality of so much of .Paak’s work continues to frustrate.
Anderson .Paak always sounds on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s a strange thing to think of an artist who already had one, in the form of 2016’s beautiful and varied Malibu, but so much of his material made before and since sounds as if it’s about to rise out of its pleasing but middlebrow neo-soul into something more resonant. Paak manages to sound distinctive but oddly impersonal. You can mark his music almost immediately, but it can suffer from blandness, boilerplate summer jams that feel more like demos for someone else to finish than a final product.
Funnily enough, his previous record, Oxnard, marked his most extreme attempt to shake up expectations, as well as his biggest misstep. Overestimating his rapping skills and capacity to convey a hard edge, Paak certainly didn’t bomb but nonetheless sounded wildly out of place, a pop artist self-consciously reaching over an imaginary boundary into Art. He retreats into the familiar with Ventura, his breeziest collection yet, and it’s at once a reminder of his skill for pleasingly diverting R&B and his fundamental limits as an artist. On opener “Come Home,” for example, twinkling piano and wafting flute interludes and rolling drums combine to embody the feeling of cruising on a hot day with the windows down, but there’s nothing here that wedges the song in the brain the way a true summer classic would. Even the presence of André 3000 in a closing verse only enlivens things slightly, his heavily enunciated phrases at least shaking up the mild arrangement. Later, on “Twilight,” Paak veers dangerously close to ‘80s faux-fusion, a canned trumpet tooting over a more modern beat of skittering, percolating beats. It’s cotton candy: sweet, but it dissolves the second you try to sink your teeth into it.
The same is true for much of the album. “Reachin’ 2 Much” bats back at the idea of “doing the most” as a negative, a hilarious riposte in a song that sounds stuck in first gear, a turgid mid-tempo number in which Paak barely even sings with strength, much less conviction, and the song’s lugubriously rubbery synths and perfunctory horn blurts drag out for six minutes. Even the political lead single, “King James,” fails to live up to its own rhetoric. Riding a jazzy saxophone line and gentle syncopation, the track plays up Paak’s respect for his subject, Lebron James, over the disgust at the issues that James so assiduously tackles with his various charities, initiatives and public stances. As a respectful tribute, it’s a good track, and it sports one of the album’s better basslines, but as a message of solidarity it feels half-hearted, the equivalent of bringing a funny sign to a protest. “What Can We Do?” closes the record on a wan lament for being loved only for the fame. “Yeah, another bag and she’ll love me in the morn,’” Paak sings, upending his lilting voice and calm arrangement with a bitterness at deep odds with the rest of the album.
Still, Paak remains a talented crafter of solid, even memorable R&B. “Winners Circle” is a lovely ode to a woman that Paak thinks might be the one, with simple but direct observational lines like his assurances that “This is not some super conventional/ Extra slick talk meant to convince you all” but that he is sincere. A click drum thumps like a heartbeat, occasionally fluttering with anticipation and nervousness. Even when things slide into more lascivious matters, Paak’s passion shines through, and the track stands as one of his finest post-Malibu. The track is then juxtaposed with “Good Heels,” in which Paak describes a brief, torrid affair, his feelings of sneakiness and duplicity embodied by the slower, sultrier groove and the way his darting vocal delivery conveys a sense of him glancing over his shoulder. “Yada Yada” and “Jet Black” are both charged with an energy sorely lacking on so much of the album, respectively conveying nervy anger and bouncy, fully realized neo-R&B. It is a backhanded swipe to label Anderson .Paak as “merely” good, but having already experienced how beautiful, soulful and unique he can be, the tame quality of so much of his work continues to frustrate. He sounds on firmer footing here than he did on Oxnard. Here’s hoping he uses his return to base camp to mount another expedition to climb higher.