Anderson .Paak is a true musical savant. He starts off as a drummer, stands up from his kit to be a producer, scribbles rhymes and lyrics to turn into songs before sliding up to the microphone to sing and rap. It’s like if Sly Stone was secretly Busta Rhymes, mixing crisp R&B grooves with 21st century production and classic soul peppering in touches of street-savvy rap. In a time where R&B is leagues away from its origins and rap’s maturity is regressing, Paak feels like an outsider in an industry that should be pushing him into the mainstream more than his peers. He’s proven himself to be smooth, skilled and versatile given his work with Dr. Dre, Mac Miller and Rapsody. Among all of his qualities, laziness is not one of them.
Five months after he dropped his harsh sophomore record Oxnard, Paak returns to the mine of slick R&B and funk rap of his acclaimed debut Malibu. Not only does he still thrive at the style that got him to the dance in the first place, but Ventura has somehow harnessed the essential elements of Paak’s essential elements. It takes purified music and inexplicably made it better. It’s turning a gold brick into a diamond somehow. A tight 40 minutes in 11 tracks, Ventura features crisp instrumentation that easily locks into place like clockwork. A particular skill of Paak and his backing band is how seamlessly they mix electronic drums and organic percussion on songs like “Reachin’ 2 Much,” “Jet Black” and “Winners Circle.” Organs and synthesizers also make effective support to a lot of tracks here, from the soulful bop of “Make It Better,” “Chosen One” and “Yada Yada.” Paak also knows how to pick the right backing singers to bring out the best soul in certain songs. Brandy feels right at home on the two-step throwback “Jet Black” while Smokey Robinson adds the perfect touch to the chorus of “Make It Better.” Paak is all about synthesis, putting all of his influences in a broth and mixing it to the right stew. Lead single “King James” has a similar strut to his Mac Miller collaboration “Dang” with a deeper funk bass and horns adding to the urgency of the song’s message. That urgency may not be felt in the album’s leisurely pace and groove, especially on the soft album closer “What Can We Do?” with a feature from the late Nate Dogg. It further supports Paak’s claims that Ventura’s smooth groove is the true companion to the off-kilter street beats of Oxnard.
As warm and inviting as Paak’s music and personality are, he’s still a conscious lyricist plugged into the world around him. “King James,” despite having an irresistible dance feel to it, is Paak taking aim at the struggles against African-Americans and the strides they make to succeed in Trump’s America. The title salutes LeBron James for “using his change to create some equal opportunities” and points out common hypocrisy (“We couldn’t stand to see our children shot dead in the streets/But when I finally took a knee/Them crackers took me out the league”). Paak is also self-conscious about his own artistic struggle, boiling basic industry talk down to “Yada Yada” (“Came a long way from them open mics at Leimert/Forgive me if I walk like a got a chip on my shoulder/Label tried to play me like I didn’t do all the work/I found another way through the open gate and my purpose”).
For the most part, Ventura is actually a rather romantic album where Paak appreciates the struggles and support the women in his life have made. He gives thanks for the strong, confident women he’s come across on the jazzy “Winner’s Circle” (“Came out my comfort zone to be your missing company/Somethin’ about the way you never gave it up to me”) while “Jet Black” is where Paak applauds his crush from her social media timeline (“And the coldest part is I’m not even there/I watch your feed, but I don’t feed into that”). He even amusingly mocks his skill as a minstrel to woo women on “Twilight” (“I’m just another annoyin’ voice [Annoyin’ voice]/You’ve heard it so many times, you could make a chorus [Make a chorus]”). Of course the peak of Paak’s romance comes with the Smokey-assisted “Make It Better,” where Paak struggles with long distance relationships (“How do you mend when you’re worlds apart?”) and the constant work put into them (“When you take somebody for your own/It can’t survive on history alone”). But the heart of the song is the simple question in the chorus (“Do you want to make it better?”), not just to the woman but to himself.
Whereas Oxnard covered various snippets of Paak’s life in vivid detail, Ventura hones in on more personal details of the artist himself. If anything, it’s about the weight on his heart and soul, what he sees in the world today and what motivates him to keep trying. It completes Paak’s introduction to the world as one of the most emotionally-grounded and rhythmically-skilled artists in hip-hop and R&B today. Paak has reached what would be a peak for any other artist of his stature, so it’s a wonder what else he can do in the future.