This is the third Anderson .Paak album to be named after a California coastal town. So it’s the completion of a loose trilogy, and because it’s the one named after his home town, you might expect Oxnard to be .Paak’s most “personal”, no matter how much you might approach that word with caution.
Yet the opening track heralds something quite different – a performative spectacle which, with its 70s blaxploitation-style guitar playing and action movie soundtrack title “The Chase”, sounds like it’s setting Oxnard up to be .Paak’s equivalent of the widescreen, cinematic likes of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly or Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man.
Except, actually, Oxnard turns out to be nowhere near as focussed. In its near one hour expanse, its subject matter covers everything from oral sex (“Headlow”) to politics (“6 Summers”) to being rich and famous (“Tints”, “Mansa Muse”) to death (“Cheers”). And the music is as erratic and varied as you might expect from the man who likes to give employment to just about every current major-league producer and rapper going on his albums; on this one alone there’s 16 credited producers including Dr. Dre and 9th Wonder, and 11 guest rappers including Dr. Dre (again), Kendrick Lamar, Q-Tip, Pusha T, J.Cole, and Snoop Dogg.
That list of collaborators is admittedly impressive, and speaks to the weight of .Paak’s presence on the west coast music scene, and the respect that his musicality deserves. Yet as anyone who follows music closely will know, a list of great collaborators does not a great album make. Cramming a bad turkey with stuffing won’t make the turkey a success.
Oxnard just doesn’t quite capture the magic of his 2016 breakthrough Malibu, despite its best attempts. The beats sound stodgy, for the most part. The collaborations don’t blend into a coherent whole, as they did on Malibu, with an overriding aesthetic being absent. And the jokes wear wafer thin after the first listen. Especially the ones about sex.
.Paak’s always been troublesome when he comes to rap-singing about sex, as he often does – it’s hard to forget Robert Christgau’s quip about his first album, Venice: “Really good at sex, and not only that–also really really good at sex.” Boring boasts about sexual prowess are the norm in hip-hop, as we all know. Yet with enough bravado, avoiding of sexist tropes, and with some clever wordplay thrown in, certain rappers can get away with it. .Paak isn’t one of those. The only interesting thing about the sex on the I-9 Freeway saga “Headlow” is that apparently it was good enough to make him cry. The only interesting thing about bonus track “Sweet Chick”… is that he somehow manages to diminish all of the cool-sounding women in it, such as the Comic Con nerd who likes to watch anime while they do it, by reducing them to sexist cliches like “freak bitch” again and again. It’s painful, and no amount of good humour in .Paak’s performance can save it.
He’s better elsewhere, and the jabs at Donald Trump on “6 Summers” are surprisingly funny. I share .Paak’s amusement in imagining the president having a love child who might “kiss señoritas and black gals”. It’d be great to witness Trump’s bigoted ignorance mentally contort itself around that one. And when he tips the hat to Mac Miller on “Cheers” it feels genuinely heartfelt, especially when it’s followed by a confession that what happened to Mac could easily have happened to him: “How do you tell a nigga slow it down when you livin’ just as fast as ’em?”
But then .Paak is quickly upstaged on the same track by Q-Tip, who provides the best guest verse on the album, which also happens to be the best verse on the album full stop. Starting with the searing: “These pictures I’m seein’ are fuckin’ me up”, Q-Tip then soars over a wide range of emotions connected to the death of a loved one you can only assume is Phife Dawg (“back in the day before you were a dog” is the giveaway). The way he describes himself as a “grown man cryin'”, his voice suddenly cracking with emotion at the memories of his friend, is more musically resonant than anything .Paak attempts on the album, and more deeply felt. And as he looks back at the memories they had together, good and bad, the metaphor he chooses perfectly encapsulates the tumultuous mental process of coming to terms with the loss of a loved one: “the freeways of my mind are crowded with traffic”. It’s a metaphor loaded with meaning and poignancy. The album might be “.Paak shit”. But in that moment, Q-Tip totally owns it.
Still, .Paak does provide the other big musical highlight. It’s the only track where his vibrancy is as fully present as it was on Malibu: the Dre-produced G-Funk homage “Who R U?” The electronic funk is fresh enough to make you wish the rest of the album had followed suit.
As it is, Oxnard is a mess. Maybe less producers, or more artistic vision, would’ve fixed that mess.